Soapbox

Legislature should put consumers first, not PG&E

Gregory Wilson, who lost his Santa Rosa home in the October 2017 wildfires, speaks during a news conference about lawsuits against PG&E.
Gregory Wilson, who lost his Santa Rosa home in the October 2017 wildfires, speaks during a news conference about lawsuits against PG&E. AP file

Is PG&E about to go bankrupt? And if it chooses to do so, how much are monthly bills going to increase?

I don’t think anybody really knows. What I do know is how much it burns me up to see a company convicted of a felony brandishing the threat of bankruptcy to demand a ratepayer bailout even before the extent of its responsibility for the deadly Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa last October is known.

 
Opinion

The bills the company is pushing at the Legislature – Senate Bill 1088 and Assembly Bill 33 – are aimed at assuring investment firms that PG&E’s profits will be propped up by customers no matter how often it violates safety regulations.

The bills would actually weaken safety standards and accountability, with pre-approval to charge customers for anything PG&E labels as safety. And that safety label would then shield it from future liability for imprudence or mismanagement.

That would eliminate protections of the type that stopped PG&E from passing on costs of their mistakes before the 2010 San Bruno explosion and would gut recent reforms to prioritize safety spending where it is most needed.

Not only would PG&E be free to raise customer rates with very limited review, the objections of TURN and other consumer groups would be silenced.

Mark Toney
Mark Toney

If PG&E is indeed teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, you can’t tell by the amounts of cash it spends on political influence. Last year, it gave more than $2 million to politicians from both parties and spent nearly $4 million lobbying in Washington, D.C. In the first half of this year, the company spent $2.2 million to lobby state legislators and officials, including $1.1 million to change California’s liability laws for wildfire damage.

As a special joint legislative committee meets this week on the issue, lawmakers should understand that we need solutions that put people, not corporations, first. For example, the state could establish a wildfire risk pool to cover catastrophic losses, modeled on the California Earthquake Authority, or create other programs to address the massive losses of fire victims.

Last year, PG&E shut off 300,000 households that couldn’t afford their electric bills. It didn’t offer them a bailout when they fell behind in their payments. Higher bills will just exacerbate the problem and leave more PG&E customers in the dark.

PG&E clearly has a problem on its hands. But its habitual failure to safely manage its power lines and poles and its repeated criminal conduct in violating regulations, will not be solved by a bailout, bankruptcy or a free pass on accountability.

The state simply can’t afford to give PG&E a free pass – not on safety and not on paying its bills. The Legislature should be looking for ways to protect consumers from PG&E, not worrying about protecting PG&E from itself.

Mark Toney is executive director of TURN, The Utility Reform Network, a California consumer advocacy group. He can be contacted at mtoney@turn.org.

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