Soapbox

Do not let PG&E, other utilities off the hook for wildfires

On Oct. 9, 2017, homes burn in Santa Rosa. Investigators have determined that power lines buffeted by heavy winds ignited at least two small fires the previous night.
On Oct. 9, 2017, homes burn in Santa Rosa. Investigators have determined that power lines buffeted by heavy winds ignited at least two small fires the previous night. The Press Democrat via AP

Utilities have the legal right to place poles and power lines in our backyards, but only because they also have the legal responsibility to keep their equipment from burning down our homes. And if that happens, they’re legally bound to compensate for the loss.

That’s why it’s chilling to find buried in the transcripts of a recent court hearing in San Francisco on last year’s deadly wildfires the most brazenly honest admission that California’s utilities are lobbying at the state Capitol for a reversal of this longstanding agreement.

Opinion

The judge asked if it were Pacific Gas & Electric’s position that it should be fully reimbursed by ratepayers for any damage it causes, even for “the most egregious fault.”

“That is our position your honor,” PG&E’s attorney replied, arguing that the company should be allowed to “socialize” its losses.

In that case, the investor-owned utility should not have been allowed to “privatize” its considerable gains --about $20 billion in shareholder value. Nor should PG&E’s CEO Geisha Williams have more than doubled her pay in 2017 to $8.6 million.

Investors and executives reap considerable financial benefits because of PG&E’s monopoly protection and guaranteed rate of return. But now PG&E wants to taxpayers to assume its risks as well.

Jamie Court new.jpg
Jamie Court

Shareholder-owned PG&E, Southern California Edison and SEMPRA want the state’s liability laws rewritten to shield them from any financial responsibility for fires, mudslides, explosions and other damage they may cause. They want the cost shifted to taxpayers and ratepayers, even in cases where the utilities are found to be criminally negligent, as PG&E has in some cases.

If people die and thousands of homes are lost because a utility failed to trim dead tree limbs too close to their power lines, as required by state law, it wouldn’t matter. If a company blows up a neighborhood because it diverts money to executive bonuses instead of replacing aging gas pipelines, it wouldn’t be cause for concern because taxpayers will pay the bill.

With no financial responsibility for their actions, what incentive will the utilities — with a fiduciary duty to make money for their shareholders — have to be responsible to us? Without the threat of financial penalty, what’s to stop them from abusing their powers as state-sanctioned monopolies?

These are the questions that legislators should be asking as PG&E’s army of lobbyists descend on them.

Eminent domain is a fearsome power that lets utilities take and use private property, whether for erecting a transmission tower or running power lines through a neighborhood. But those who have their property used by a private company that makes money off the deal should be able to hold it accountable for what it destroys.

Jamie Court is president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at Jamie@consumerwatchdog.org.
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