Gavin Newsom passed on a chance to change the course of the lives of 16 million Californians for the better 15 months ago.
Instead, he let arguably the deadliest and arguably the most irresponsible corporation in 21st century state off the hook.
The governor had the chance to stop “the PG&E way” from helping scorch the Northern California landscape, potentially add to its manslaughter body count, and saddling struggling families with power bills that rise with the consistency of the summer solstice.
But instead of forcing a sale of PG&E and/or pursuing its breakup into public power agencies to settle the claims of the 2018 Paradise fire victims and to reduce the chances of future decisions behind made that put profits ahead of people as he suggested, he aligned himself with the corporate world of Wall Street investors.
The deal he allowed to happen was supposed to help make 70,000 people PG&E burned out of house and home at least partially financially whole.
Given the deal allowed the sale of PG&E stock placed in trust to come up with the bulk of the money to fund a $13.5 billion to pay the victims, the odds of that type of money being generated happening are plunging with every new acre consumed by the Dixie wildfire that continues to burn out of control.
That’s because PG&E has indicated their lines — ironically in the same Feather River Canyon where the power company’s equipment was determined to be culpable in the Camp Fire that killed 84 people — may have started the Dixie wildfire as well.
The Dixie wildfire is the one we’ve been breathing while it reduces our visibility at times down to five miles for the past month as PG&E slinks toward record profits by 2025 as it has promised Wall Street investors.
The Dixie fire has burned more than 578,000 acres making it the largest wildfire ever in recorded California history. If criminal investigations in two counties looking into PG&E’s role in starting the fire leads to yet another conviction of the undisputed Public Enemy No. 1 of Smokey the Bear, it will solidify the company’s standing as the firm that effectively lines investors’ pockets while destroying the homes and businesses of customers as well as setting in motion the death of ratepayers.
Yes, the 70,000 victims — they are from the 2017 and 2018 fires PG&E helped spark that killed over 100 people and burned more than 24,000 homes and other buildings — were aware that the deal was dependent on PG&E not being found liable for starting more fires in the future. The trust, in order to realize $13.5 billion in value, has to depend on PG&E stock not tanking. That’s due to the trust holding 20 percent of PG&E stock.
The value of PG&E stock has plunged 25 percent so far this year.
It needs to be clear PG&E equipment doesn’t start every wildfire north of Bakersfield in California.
We have a century of playing god with nature through wildfire suppression. By extinguishing fires as quickly as possible it has allowed endless pockets of thick brush to build up adding to fuel loads that are naturally reduced by smaller fires. The drought isn’t helping either.
That said there is a well-documented trend of PG&E allowing poles and other equipment to be used well past their projected life expectancy to keep costs down and profits up.
And no matter how reckless PG&E is the State of California — currently headed by Newsom — guarantees the power company a return pushing 11 percent of every dollar they collect.
That will also be true of the $3 billion PG&E plans to spend on burying some of its power lines on the back of ratepayers.
PG&E was planning to bury the line that may have sparked the Dixie fire. But it wasn’t obviously an urgent matter for them.
There is clearly a better chance of an entity answering directly to the people they serve and not stockholders such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District would stay on top of aging equipment than PG&E.
We know that because between San Bruno where the PG&E gas division blew up a neighborhood and killed eight people and its annual habit of marking summer by taking out Northern California neighborhoods and entire communities tons of evidence has surfaced the for-profit company has ignored pressing equipment replacement needs for decade.
If we want less forests to burn, less neighborhoods to be blown up, less towns like Paradise and Greenville not to be wiped off the face of the earth and reduce wildfires from making people homeless and putting them in an early grave, PG&E has to go.
What PG&E has done cannot be forgiven. PG&E has earned the death penalty equivalent for a publicly regulated utility.
Their wanton and reckless behavior keeps getting worse as the years pass.
First it was positioning drinking water in Hinkley to save a few bucks disposing of chemicals.
Then it was the undermining of their own deal cut with the California Legislature to clear the path for irrigation districts to enter the retail electric business in exchange for needed votes to partially deregulate electricity in the state.
Next PG&E used that de-regulation not to lower costs to consumers as promised but to sell itself to itself by creating a new holding company to allow them to write off their assets a second time against tax liability.
At the same time, they tried to beat Enron at its game and ended up sending power bills sky high, forced what the company’s spin control folks called “rolling brown outs” instead of blackouts, and sent the company into its first bankruptcy.
Then we found out PG&E was falsifying pipeline safety records and sending natural gas through them at pressurized levels higher than they were designed to handle.
That came out at the cost of eight lives in San Bruno.
PG&E went on a tear of record profits and zero tax liability under federal initiatives aimed at investing in infrastructure such as replacing aging equipment. Subsequent wildfires aging PG&E equipment sparked calls into question whether the company squandered the opportunity to modernize the system as the tax code adjustment intended.
Next up was the growing wildfire problems and PG&E’s second bankruptcy in 15 years.
The reason PG&E is still in business is one of two things.
Either they have a lot of friends in high places in Sacramento or the folks we send to Sacramento are gutless wonders.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Journal or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org