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Protecting the firm that may destroy your neighborhood
Dennis Wyatt

PG&E netted $874 million in profit in 2015. Then in 2016 PG&E cleared $1.39 billion.

A California Public Utilities Commission audit released in October 2017 after maintenance failures were blamed by many for the Napa-Sonoma Fire that killed 46 people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes revealed that PG&E was the perennially leading notorious sinner among California utilities for having the biggest backlog of critically overdue maintenance and repair work. Of those, 3,527 pressing overdue needs were in Sonoma County that ended up bearing the brunt of the Wine Country Wildfires.

So what did PG&E do with their profits from 2015 and 2016? Here’s a hint: They didn’t spend it on required and overdue maintenance work that could have prevented deaths and the wanton destruction of property.

On Friday virtually in the waning minutes of the California Legislature’s session, PG&E got a bill passed to shield it from what they expect will be $17 billion worth of liability from the 2017 wildfires and heaven knows how much from this year or the handiwork they’ll accomplish next year.

To understand what is going on here is there are 200 lawsuits pending that represent 2,470 victims including relatives of the 46 people killed.

Essentially granting PG&E partial financial immunity if they are determined to have negligence in those deaths would be the moral equivalent of the California Legislature limiting the financial liability of any civil lawsuits that could be filed against the Golden State Killer suspect.

The only difference is PG&E is accused of killing significantly more people than most mass murderer suspect in state history even if you don’t toss their San Bruno incident where years of negligent operations of its natural gas system led to the death of 8 people and the leveling of a neighborhood in 2010.

Instead of taking decisive steps after the Wine Country Wildfires in 2017 to force PG&E to step up its maintenance game, the state now has decided to shield PG&E from being 100 percent responsible for any legal settlement. They will be able to go to the CPUC to pass on the cost to ratepayers that also include those who lost loved ones or whose homes were destroyed.

In other words if PG&E is found liable for causing a fire that killed your kid you as a grieving parent will be chipping in to help pay any settlement that PG&E is required to pay. California is essentially making victims pay for the wrongdoing of the party that may be found responsible for the loss of their property and the loss of the lives of their loved ones.

The legislature says they are worried about future energy costs for consumers if wildfire litigations forces PG&E into bankruptcy.

Maybe PG&E’s lackeys in Sacramento should stop worrying about propping up PG&E per se and let the actions of the utility’s corporate management run their natural course.

PG&E’s top brass misled the legislature on deregulation and set up a holding company to sell itself to itself to reap fat one time profits while re-depreciating assets ratepayers had paid for years before. Ratepayers ended up paying again for infrastructure they had already paid for.

San Bruno showed they were happily taking their 10.65 percent state guaranteed profit imposed by the CPUC to pay million dollar bonuses to the management team that almost drove PG&E into bankruptcy as well as buying a multi-million dollar corporate jet and not doing preventive maintenance and replacement of aging natural gas pipelines they often put under more pressure than they were rated for in a bid to squeeze out more profits.

Then the $1 billion plus in federal tax breaks from 2009 to 2011 for the purpose of investing in infrastructure that allowed PG&E to pay no taxes on $4.85 billion in profits demonstrated PG&E’s investment strategy of reducing costs by not giving priority to safety issues such as backlogged maintenance work but to spend money in areas that would maximize profits.

Perhaps the correct answer is to let PG&E go into bankruptcy.

To be clear PG&E’s problem isn’t its frontline workers. It’s corporate management.

To squeeze profits over the years, PG&E has cut back on its frontline staffing. Ask anyone who tried to move a project forward 10 years ago knows how PG&E pared back construction staffing to save money.

I’ll bet PG&E line workers know what needs to be done and don’t favor cutting corners. It’s a far cry from the corporate suites on Beale Street in San Francisco.

PG&E’s bottom line is simple: They are a for-profit company first and foremost. They are not a public safety firm. It is why they didn’t cut into their profits in 2015 and 2016 to hire more line workers to address a growing backlog of maintenance issues.

Now because PG&E was allowed to put profit over safety thanks to the lethargic toothless lapdog that the CPUC has become, the state wants to assure PG&E can continue operating instead of being forced to be sold in a bankruptcy court should they end up there.

If Sacramento believes PG&E needs protecting based on its sub-dismal safety track record, then they have said your house and life is expendable as long as those PG&E election campaign donations keep rolling in.