Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged Thursday to address problems at The Pacific Gas & Electric Company. To honor that pledge, he must hold the behemoth utility – and convicted felon – to account for its continued negligence, corruption and bad faith.
It won’t be easy. The monopolistic utility, with its big public relations budget and prowess with the levers of power, has evaded real accountability for years. The corporation was convicted of six felonies in 2016 for negligence that contributed to a gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno in 2010. It came out PG&E had attempted to mislead the National Transportation Safety Board during its investigation of the explosion. And in December, the Public Utility Commission revealed the company had been falsifying pipeline safety records for years.
PG&E’s actions in the San Bruno case represent crime, coverup, death and destruction from a company we are forced to pay to keep our homes lighted and heated. But when you’re PG&E, you can just hire more lobbyists, give more money to legislators’ campaigns and escape accountability until the next disaster.
PG&E is now a suspect in several major, destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that killed dozens of people and destroyed entire communities. As scrutiny increased over the role of the company’s equipment in the 2017 fires, so did the company’s spending in Sacramento. PG&E spent about $8.9 million on lobbying in 2018, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.
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It apparently worked: The Legislature passed a bill amounting to a bailout for the company.
It’s hard to have any sympathy for PG&E. If the company is found responsible for the Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, it may have violated its probation in the San Bruno case. Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the company could be charged with murder.
PG&E may be liable for billions of dollars in damages. Three major insurance companies have already filed lawsuits. The company’s stock price has plunged and been downgraded to junk by Standard & Poor’s. Rumors of another bankruptcy abound. Top executives are fleeing. Secret plans to sell off the company’s natural gas division — outlined in a plan cinematically titled “Project Falcon” — leaked to the press. The company is rumored to be considering a shakeup of its board.
If found responsible for the Tubbs Fire or the Camp Fire, the question is whether anyone has the courage – or the power – to hold PG&E accountable. It’s the perfect time for a bold new leader like Newsom to step in and demand change.
Outrage over PG&E is reaching peak levels. Some suggest breaking up the monopolistic utility into smaller pieces, letting it go bankrupt or initiating a public takeover. These ideas warrant consideration, but none merits action until the consequences are fully understood.
Here, however, are some steps Gov. Newsom can take without delay:
▪ Demand accountability. Newsom has an open slot on the Public Utilities Commission, the oversight body charged with regulating PG&E. He must ensure that his appointment is someone fiercely committed to public safety and consumer rights – someone unafraid to hold PG&E accountable.
▪ Pledge transparency. PG&E has a legendary ability to get what it wants in Sacramento through the legalized corruption of lobbying and campaign contributions. Newsom should be open and honest about the utility’s powerful grip on the Capitol. He knows how they operate, having served as mayor of PG&E’s home town. In fact, PG&E and many of its executives have donated to his campaigns. Newsom can take a bold step by refusing to accept any more PG&E money. Perhaps he can inspire the legislature to follow his example.
▪ Question everything. PG&E spends tons of money on public relations and media. The company knows how to put on a show. Strategic leaks regarding potential bankruptcy or “secret” plans to sell off parts of the company should be seen as deliberate attempts to create pressure, impress Wall Street and influence decisions. “There are no accidents in this,” says State Senator Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno. Newsom should not be goaded into a course of action by PG&E’s PR strategy. When tempted to fall for their sad song of “insolvency,” he should remember that people have died.
▪ Push PUC reform. Sen. Hill questioned whether the PUC has all the power it needs to hold wealthy utilities accountable. “The PUC is somewhat of a cumbersome, bureaucratic, slow-moving operation,” he said. “They’re outmatched, outgunned, outspent. I wish there was a way to correct some of that, and maybe that’s something the governor could do.”
Newsom has never been shy about championing a big vision for innovative government that’s responsive to public concerns. Here’s a chance to make good on it. PG&E’s crimes – both the proven and the alleged – did not occur on his watch. But the question of whether the utility will be held accountable is completely in his hands now.