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How much longer will Sacramento allow PG&E to play Russian roulette?
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Let’s say you are on federal probation for felonies connected with the deaths of eight people.

You are also under state supervision for what one might characterize as hazardous practices in your business that could impact public health and safety.

With that as a backdrop you walk into a stadium of 16 million people who are forced by the state — that is well aware of your sloppy safety record — to do business with you.

You pull out a six shooter, load a single bullet, spin the chamber, point the gun randomly at someone, pull the trigger and the bullet blasts through the person’s head killing them. You repeat this enough times until you kill 85 people.

The reaction would be swift and overwhelming. Prosecutors, including the California State Attorney’s Office, would be scrambling to make sure you paid for your crimes. You would not be doing business as usual, that’s for sure.

But that is exactly what is happening with PG&E. Because it is a “business” and not a person there is no appetite in Sacramento to go after PG&E for reckless homicide. You might wonder if a pharmaceutical firm that had prior knowledge its drugs they are selling were killing people indiscriminately while the CEO pocketed record profits would get the same kids’ globe treatment. It wouldn’t. So, what makes PG&E so special?

It’s because if PG&E was prosecuted for 85 felony counts in connection with the people killed in the Paradise Fire, there would have to be a co-defendant at the table — the State of California.

That’s because of the unique and privileged position PG&E — as well as all other for-profit utilities in California — has been granted by the state. They are handed profitable markets by the state that they have a monopoly over. The state severely hamstrings any efforts by local entities to carve out territories so electricity can be treated like other vital utilities such as drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. The state then guarantees utilities like PG&E minimum profits on every aspect of running the business to the tune of 10.5 percent. Even portions of rate increases approved by the state for things such as covering the tab of PG&E’s small army of lawyers and outside legal costs comes with a built-in 10.5 percent profit in state blessed rate hikes.

That’s all fine and dandy, you might argue, but wasn’t the death of 85 people, the destruction of 14,000 homes, the burning of 5,000 other structures ranging from schools, churches, stores, and hospitals just simply an accident?

Would you consider it an accident if a drunken driver kills 85 people after being cited repeatedly for drunken driving? Also, would you be enraged to find out the state did nothing to the driver and let him continue driving despite having knowledge of them driving drunk not once before but more the 1,900 times in the previous two years?

There were more than 1,900 fires that have been sparked by PG&E lines and other equipment over the past several years. We know this because that is based on data gathered by none other than the California Public Utilities Commission that supposedly exists to look out after the interests of consumers.

The CPUC was supposed to look out for the interests of the little guys — those 85 people in Paradise killed in the inferno sparked by PG&E as well as nearly 40 million other Californians. Instead it has a record of looking after PG&E’s interests first.

You could make a case that the CPUC is as culpable in the deaths of 85 people and the severe financial and personal losses of well over 50,000 people victimized by the Camp Fire.

The CPUC isn’t a watchdog for the public. It is a lapdog for PG&E.

The state agency approved rate increase after rate increase for PG&E that included set asides to replace power poles yet did nothing when evidence was presented that not only did PG&E divert much of that money but they had the audacity to essentially ask for more rate increases to do work they already said they would do with previous rate hikes.

This is a company that wantonly ran itself into the ground to try and emulate the Eron profit maximizing model and ended up in bankruptcy 16 years ago and is now back in bankruptcy after spending the past decade dedicating corporate brainpower to squeezing out even more profits while ignoring rank-and-file reports of pressing maintenance and equipment needs.

PG&E is not a company being pulverized by climate change. It is a rogue corporation that wantonly ignored rules, opted to pocket money intended for system upgrades, used every accounting trick and used lobbyists to avoid paying federal taxes for 11 years, dismissed internal reports warning of impending disasters, and courted favor with virtually every elected official in Sacramento with campaign donations.

This was all done with the CPUC in snooze mode while occasionally slapping PG&E on the wrist in a bid to show the public they are in control.

No one believes PG&E should still be in business except for those pulling down six to seven figure paychecks, Wall Street investment firms, and gutless Sacramento politicians that will dabble with $4 billion climate change bonds but won’t do the hard work and end PG&E which, based on the last two years of PG&E triggered wildfires and destruction, would have a more positive impact on the global warming fight than all of the state’s efforts so far.

Yes PG&E employees — the rank and file folks — would not like to see the plug pulled on their employer if the state breaks it up into locally controlled entities similar to Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Lathrop Irrigation District, Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District and what South San Joaquin Irrigation District is proposing.

But aside from losing a 25 percent PG&E discount, what do they have to fear? Rest assured their skills will be in high demand by local publicly owned power providers. Those same providers will be under tremendous pressure to deliver safe and reliable electricity and provide construction services in a timelier manner. Breaking up PG&E will not only provide employment opportunities for virtually all existing PG&E electric employees except for those in the corporate suite but it will create a demand for more skilled workers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom could go down in history as the next Hiram Johnson, the highly touted reform governor that saved most of California from the clutches of the PG&E of its day — the Southern Pacific Railroad.

All he needs to do is start the ball rolling to free 16 million California electric customers from the clutches of for-profit utilities including one that has now either blown up or burned to death 93 of its customers for a higher body count than any mass murderer in state history.