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PG&E has helped take down one governor, will Newsom be next?
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Governor Gavin Newsom may soon learn the hard way trying to nurse a venomous snake back to health doesn’t mean it will be grateful and not eventually sink its fangs into you.

Pacific Gas & Electric this week was caught doing what it does best — ignoring regulators so they can squeeze out the most profits to satisfy the hedge fund crowd.

Not even a year after their top brass delivered their go to line of “we promise to do better” every time they steer PG&E ratepayers into a financial ditch following pleading guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter, they were back to their usual tricks.

This time around they opted to ignore court and California Public Utilities Commission directives to address the most egregious areas of high wildfire in maintaining vegetation around power lines.

Instead, they focused on areas with minimal risk which also meant minimum expense for them. Freely translated, they likely squeezed out more profits.

The CPUC was livid. On a unanimous vote they stepped up their oversight of the convicted felon corporation that PG&E is. It was also the first step in a process that could lead regulators to eventually pull the plug on PG&E by revoking their utility license.

The fact PG&E essentially wasted an entire year they could have spent reducing wildfire potential in the highest risk areas is stunning given 2020 was the worst year on record for wildfires.

And now that all signs are pointing to an even worse wildfire season this year, PG&E’s inept approach to reducing risk is likely to have even more severe consequences for its customers that are saddled with some of the highest electric rates in the country.

PG&E seems to think killing off 84 people and destroying 15,000 homes a year is an acceptable cost of doing business.

Newsom passed on an opportunity to break up PG&E by creating or expanding public utilities so 16 million Northern Californians would not be at the whim of the utility. Ignoring a 20-year record of reckless behavior, misleading rate cases, and nose-thumbing at regulatory directives Newsom opted to try and rehabilitate the largest mass killer in California history.

In doing so Newsom might have unwittingly contributed to his demise.

Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown — arguably one of the most astute politicians California has ever seen — in a video conference with officials of various public water concerns earlier this month gave his take on the recall Newsom is expected to face later this year.

Brown noted Newsom will be in trouble later this year if the impacts of COVID both from lockdowns and in public health are lingering, schools aren’t fully open, if there are drought restrictions, and massive wildfires are underway.

Brown believes what will power the recall vote won’t be Democrat-Republican partisan politics but anger and frustration.

It is an observation rooted in what happened the last time a governor was recalled in 2003. PG&E played a key role in the demise of Gray Davis even though deregulation that led to soaring power bills and rolling brownouts were not the result of Gov. Davis’ actions.

There was a repertoire of other issues Californians across the political spectrum were frustrated with as well.

This time around Newsom’s slip of judgment dining at the French Laundry violating a slew of COVID-19 protocols he was preaching that other Californians had to follow gave life to what was expected to be doomed as the sixth unsuccessful attempt to get a recall election qualified for the ballot since he took office in 2019.

It could very well be the handiwork of PG&E again that seals Newsom’s fate.

Two decades. Two bankruptcies. Two governors as collateral damage. More than 130 customers killed. And more than 25,000 homes and other structures such as schools, churches, and hospitals burned to the ground or blown up.

It’s going to be real hard to steer the electorate to the “no” bubble on the recall ballot by implying it is the handiwork of Donald Trump and inept Republicans that can’t even get a dog catcher elected in a regular election if half of the state is burning, power outages are a weekly occurrence, people are told to flush toilets only when they have to, schools aren’t back to normal, and COVID is still hurting people either in terms of their health or the economic  damage created in the wake of lockdowns.

Among PG&E-related fang marks Newson could be poisoned with in the recall:

*The odds are high their poorly maintained system will trigger horrendous wildfires this year.

*PG&E under Newsom’s watch now has two consecutive years in the aftermath of the Paradise inferno of subpar tree trimming efforts that were a key component of the governor’s sign off on keeping PG&E alive.

*Based on what PG&E has done after getting a third lease on life, experts believe it will now take 20 years to “harden” the utility’s system against wildfires and not the 10 years PG&E agreed to. That, of course, will translate into big rate hikes on top of those already coming down the road.

*The judge handling PG&E’s probation for the 2010 San Bruno natural gas line that killed eight people — a low kill for most of PG&E’s ineptness — is so ticked at the firm’s management of its slipshod maintenance practices that he’s pondering an order to force PG&E to deliberately turn off power more frequently to reduce wildfire risks.

Is it unfair that people may blame Newsom for all this? Perhaps, as it would have taken a bold initiative and the support of legislators beholden to PG&E and the California public power cartel to have effectively broken up PG&E.

But Newsom is the governor. He is the guy that is not only the face of California but he has welded the power of his office even when there have been valid questions raised about his ability to do so to the degree he felt he had to in order to combat the COVID-19 emergency.

One would expect he could dig into his constitutional bag of tricks and find a way to free 16 million Californians from the high-priced killing machine PG&E is. The rampant destruction of lives, homes, and wildfires by a company that for all practical purposes has been given a license to burn is definitely an emergency.

But unlike pandemic emergencies that come around every century or so, PG&E’s very existence has become a yearly emergency for California.