Editorial: California must hold PG&E accountable for past wildfires


San Jose Mercury News



Californians will have to wait to discover the cause of the tragic Camp Fire that has claimed more than 60 lives and burned nearly the entire city of Paradise. But they shouldn’t have to wait to make PG&E more accountable for the utility’s failure to properly maintain its equipment.

It’s unacceptable that the Legislature continues to enable a utility business model that favors putting profits before safety.

Enough is enough.

It’s no secret that PG&E went all-out with its successful lobbying effort last summer, spending $1.7 million over three months to pressure legislators to reduce the utility’s liability for wildfire damages caused by its equipment. That doesn’t include the money PG&E spent on a major advertising campaign designed to convince Californians of how much the utility values safety.

The facts tell another story.

Cal Fire has determined that PG&E’s power lines and other equipment were responsible for 16 of the wine country fires last year that caused $10 billion in damages. The majority of those wildfires were caused by tree limbs making contact with power lines. The agency has yet to issue a final report on the cause of the Tubbs Fire, which killed 24 people.

Californians shouldn’t forget that a state audit by the PUC revealed that PG&E had violated electricity-grid safety regulations at least 11 times in the years prior to the 2017 fires. Nor that the PUC reported that PG&E had failed to conduct timely inspections and fulfill work orders required by the state regulator in thousands of instances over a five-year period. At the same time, PG&E was producing $1 billion in profits every year.

Californians should also remember that PG&E is a convicted felon for its negligence in the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

That history demanded that the Legislature conduct an independent analysis of PG&E’s performance and its ability to pay for the cost of future damages.

Instead, the Legislature approved and Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 901 into law, legislation that was accurately described as a utility bailout.

In its defense, PG&E is spending additional funding on safety than in previous years. The impact of climate change has also made its job more challenging. But the Legislature’s action does too little to give the utility the incentive to change its ways.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, was the only Democrat in the state Senate to vote against SB 901. While his colleagues have backed the position that PG&E is too big to fail, he believes the Legislature should explore whether PG&E is “too big to succeed.” It may be necessary to split up the utility’s electrical and gas operations, he argues. Whatever model the state uses, the goal must be to create a utility operation that doesn’t have pleasing Wall Street as its primary motivation.

It’s a safe assumption that PG&E will continue its intense lobbying efforts in Sacramento. The question is whether the public will pressure the Legislature enough to implement the change Californians need.

(c)2018 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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