Private power, public catastrophe

PG&E responsible for deadly California wildfire — again

November 2018. Firefighters attempt to hold the line against high winds and drought conditions during the Camp Fire. PHOTO: InciWeb
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December 1991, Santa Rosa, California. A woman and her two-year-old granddaughter lose their lives when a natural gas line explodes.

September 2010, San Bruno. A gas line explosion kills eight people in a suburb south of San Francisco and injures dozens more.

October 2017, wine country. With 17 wildfires raging, 12 of them char hundreds of square miles in and around Sonoma County, resulting in 18 deaths.

November 2018, Butte County. California’s worst wildfire kills 86 people, destroys 14,000 homes, and levels the town of Paradise.

What do all these disasters, and many more, have in common? The culpability of Pacific Gas and Electric, the country’s largest energy utility.

The damage done. Climate change has set the stage for bigger, more intense, and more lethal wildfires around the world. But, to mix metaphors, it is all too often PG&E that lights the match.

PG&E has admitted that it is “probably” responsible for the Camp Fire that laid waste to Paradise last year. Most of the people who died were elderly, many were poor, and many had disabilities.

Survivors have lost everything: homes, belongings, and often family members, friends, and pets. They have taken shelter where they can, including living in their cars or surfing on friends’ couches.

PG&E’s Caribou-Palermo transmission line is suspected of having started the inferno. The line, which was later found to be damaged, lost power before the fire. The Wall Street Journal reported that the company had repeatedly delayed safety work on the line, including replacement of towers and wires.

The for-profit utility routinely neglects its electric grid infrastructure and violates safety rules and standards. In 2017, PG&E was convicted on six felony charges in connection with the 2010 San Bruno explosion.

Between 2014 and 2017, investigators held PG&E responsible for more than 1,500 fires.

In a three-month trial in 1997, the corporation was convicted of 739 counts of negligence in a 1994 Sierra blaze. A prosecution expert testified that PG&E diverted $80 million in funds from tree-trimming safety programs, required by law, into shareholder profits.

And let’s not forget that during the 1950s and ’60s, PG&E is the company that dumped 370 million gallons of chromium-tainted, cancer-causing waste liquid into the ground water of Hinkley, Calif., as shown in the stirring film Erin Brockovich. Hinkley is now almost a ghost town, a tragic forerunner of Paradise.

Bankruptcy as bailout. On Jan. 29 this year, facing dozens of lawsuits from those affected by fires it caused, PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection, listing assets of $71.39 billion and liabilities of $51.69 billion. This is a strategic move to pressure state legislators to bail out the repeat felon. The goal is to foist the costs of the devastation PG&E has caused onto ordinary ratepayers while saving the company and protecting investors’ profits.

According to the bankruptcy rules, settlement payments to wildfire victims will take a back seat to the claims of PG&E’s Fortune 500 creditors, like JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The power provider has worked the bankruptcy scam once before, in reaction to the 2001 California energy crisis that featured rolling blackouts. The turmoil was brought on as Enron and other energy traders exploited deregulation of the industry and caused wholesale prices to spike massively.

Deregulation starting in the 1990s freed energy providers from having to generate the power themselves. They now could buy it from wholesalers and then distribute it to consumers at a profitable markup, often piggybacking on existing power grids built with public money, creating a layer of parasitic middlemen. PG&E both generates energy itself and plays the buy-and-sell market.

The reorganization plan coming out of PG&E’s bankruptcy in 2001 burdened consumers with $7.2 billion of the company’s debt. For its part, the utility survived “without major structural changes and with its top management intact,” according to bloomberg.com.

Why this tender government treatment for such a scoundrel? Like the mammoth banks during the financial crisis of 2007-2008, PG&E is “too big to fail.” It distributes electricity and natural gas to more than six million customers in Northern California. It functions as a monopoly, with no other company authorized to deliver electricity and gas to customers in nearly half the state. Its collapse would throw the state’s energy supply into turmoil.

Perhaps equally important, the corporation spends the most money lobbying the state legislature, to the tune of nearly $9 million in 2018.

Take it over — the only logical conclusion! The lethally irresponsible behavior of PG&E is a compelling argument for seizing the company, including all its assets, and making it public. Energy, like healthcare, is too important to leave in the hands of corporations only concerned with profit. (See healthcare story on page three.)

In fact, the industry should be nationalized countrywide, under workers’ control. PG&E is hardly the only energy criminal, although it may be the worst. And supplying power needs while responding to climate change — trying to ensure that the planet remains habitable for humans and our fellow species — requires a coordinated plan of attack. This will be impossible with each provider operating individualistically. The “free market” is chaotic, anarchistic, and unaccountable. That is certainly not what we need right now.

Of course nationalization is not the end of the story. We need government money — taxpayers’ money — spent on maintaining infrastructure, green planning, wildfire education and prevention, disaster preparedness, and the like — not wars, militarization of the police, and more prisons, including immigration detention centers.

Public energy, properly funded and environmentally sustainable. It’s the only thing that makes sense.

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