It was an expensive week for PG&E.
• They agreed to pay $70 million to San Bruno to compensate that city for leveling one of its neighborhoods in a natural gas pipeline explosion that also killed eight people.
• They agreed to pay almost $30 million to the federal government for fires that burned 11,000 acres in national forests that were blamed on the utility failing to keep trees cleared away from transmission lines that subsequently fell across wires to ignite blazes.
• They agreed to pay $3.6 million to a Southern California water board for failure to stem toxic chromium pollution in Hinkley - the Mojave Desert town that inspired the unfriendly PG&E movie titled “Erin Brockovich.”
All of this doesn’t bode well for the California Public Utilities Commission.
Granted, PG&E was the culprit in each case but the bigger question is why does the CPUC even exist?
It’s nice that the CPUC and other state and federal agencies hold PG&E accountable for their misdeeds. The CPUC, though, wasn’t created to protect consumers after the fact.
The $103.6 million in just one week is only a sliver of the fines and damages PG&E has paid over the years. Two quick recent examples that come to mind is the $28.6 million fine PG&E paid for its negligence in blowing up a home and killing a man in Rancho Cordova on Christmas Eve 2008 plus $102 million PG&E paid in 2008 to Union Pacific for a massive fire PG&E triggered eight years earlier in Plumas and Lassen counties.
All of the mayhem, death, and destruction were caused because PG&E wasn’t following rules that regulators at the CPUC are supposed to enforce. In short, the CPUC is far from a consumer watchdog. A more accurate way to describe the CPUC is as a utility industry lapdog. The agency’s governing board and staff are riddled with people who once worked for the vary utilities they are supposed to regulate.
Making it worse, every three years the CPUC allows PG&E to make a general rate hike proposal that includes a set aside of funds collected from ratepayers to cover any legal settlement the utility may incur from inadvertently killing, or maiming ratepayers and the destruction of their property.
And if after three years they don’t spend all the money they were allowed to collect from ratepayers to cover the cost of lawsuits, the CPUC allows them to pocket the balance as profit.
PG&E obviously should be more careful when it comes to safety issues. The San Francisco-based utility has pledged to do just that.
But the CPUC is as much blame in many instances as PG&E. The CPUC should have known PG&E wasn’t spending all of the money it was authorized to collect by the CPUC on upgrading their natural gas pipeline and power system as well as the fact the money allotted by rate hikes wasn’t enough. The same goes for routine maintenance along major power transmission lines.
One can’t regulate an industry and enforce the rules if you don’t routinely and effectively inspect that industry and hold them to the standards that have been established.
In all the anger focused on PG&E it is easy to forget that someone was supposed to be making sure the monopoly and quasi-government agency was following the rules.
California needs to overhaul the Cuddle Public Utilities Commission just as reform governor Hiram Johnson almost century ago finally got the California Legislature to hold the State Railroad Commission accountable.
This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-249-3519.