Soapbox

Another View: Breaking up PG&E will hurt safety

A PG&E worker picks up parts after a tree knocked down a utility pole in San Leandro during a December storm. The workers’ union says breaking up the company would not be good for safety.
A PG&E worker picks up parts after a tree knocked down a utility pole in San Leandro during a December storm. The workers’ union says breaking up the company would not be good for safety. Bay Area News Group

As the union that represents nearly all of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s front-line workers, our top priority is safety. We are in common cause with California Public Utilities Commission regulators and found much to applaud in the record $1.6 billion fine levied on PG&E for the San Bruno gas explosion and the company’s decision not to contest the fine.

However, there was one troubling idea floated by the commission and highlighted in a Sacramento Bee editorial (“Record penalty a good start, but PG&E is too big,” April 15) that would dramatically undermine safety efforts. And that is the unsound proposal of breaking up PG&E into separate gas and electric utilities.

Few who remember the debacle of deregulation take the idea seriously. But now that it has been floated, it’s necessary to remind Californians that splitting up the company would mean less – not more – investment in safety. It would mean less information sharing, less training and duplication of risky work.

When it comes to safety, bigger is actually much better. It means more resources, more expertise and the ability to focus resources on the safety of both electric and gas workers.

And it is worth noting that the people who seem most pleased by the notion are PG&E’s business competitors in the electric sector. But the last time we put big corporations in charge of our energy supply – think Enron – we ended up with rolling blackouts designed to increase their profit margins.

Make no mistake, the system is dramatically safer now than it was before San Bruno. Billions of dollars in upgrades combined with the return to a “safety first” culture have created a better workplace for our members and a safer system for California. That doesn’t mean things are perfect – an incident Friday in Fresno made clear there needs to be more public communication and coordination on gas line safety – but take it from the men and women who work on our gas valves and wires: Tremendous progress has been made.

We thank PUC regulators for their dedication to a safer system. But breaking up the company is bad policy that is rejected by the workers who know the system best.

Tom Dalzell of Vacaville is business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents 18,000 members in California and Nevada.

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