New­som look­ing scared dur­ing fire sea­son

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Opinion -

At times dur­ing this fall’s still sim­mer­ing fire sea­son, rookie Gov. Gavin New­som looked a lit­tle like a scared rab­bit as he ping­ponged for weeks from blaze to blaze, from Los An­ge­les to Santa Rosa and many points in be­tween.

New­som has good political rea­son to be fright­ened. He lived through the en­ergy crunch in the first years of this mil­len­nium and knows how that de­ba­cle de­stroyed the pop­u­lar­ity of then-Gov. Gray Davis, even though Davis had no say about the elec­tric­ity dereg­u­la­tion be­hind the cri­sis.

While al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion were the prox­i­mate cause for Davis be­ing re­called and thrown out of the gover­nor’s of­fice, there’s at least a chance that election re­sult would have been dif­fer­ent if he hadn’t been so dam­aged by look­ing and act­ing im­po­tent in the face of rolling black­outs and brownouts dur­ing the cri­sis.

New­som also is not re­spon­si­ble for con­di­tions that cre­ated yet another de­struc­tive fire sea­son, but he does bear some re­spon­si­bil­ity for the wide­spread so-called “pub­lic safety power shut­offs” (PSPS) that plagued mil­lions of Cal­i­for­ni­ans as winds blew and fires burned.

Most blame ought to lie with a string of re­cent gov­er­nors, in­clud­ing Jerry Brown, Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, Davis, Pete Wil­son, Ron­ald Rea­gan and Pat Brown.

They all ap­pointed Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion ( PUC) ma­jori­ties that stood by idly as util­ity com­pa­nies di­verted tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in main­te­nance fees paid monthly by cus­tomers since the 1950s to other uses, in­clud­ing ex­ec­u­tive bonuses. Mean­while, power trans­mis­sion lines and poles de­te­ri­o­rated for decades.

But New­som’s of­fice did host a se­ries of pri­vate meet­ings with of­fi­cials of Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Co. all through the spring and early sum­mer, at­tended by his top aides and lead­ing PG&E ex­ec­u­tives. All that while, he pushed hard pub­licly for pas­sage of AB 1054, a leg­isla­tive bill that set up a new state Wild­fire Fund which will cost Cal­i­for­nia elec­tric cus­tomers more than $10 bil­lion.

Records from the meet­ings re­main se­cret, but it’s highly likely they covered the prospect of PSPS’s and who would de­sign and okay them.

As it emerged, PG&E made all the de­ci­sions that blacked out mil­lions in vast swaths of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia when­ever there was a threat of high, dry winds this fall. Those de­ci­sions turned the bank­rupt util­ity into Cal­i­for­nia’s least pop­u­lar com­pany.

New­som knows he has mostly done the bid­ding of big util­i­ties like PG&E, which has put al­most $300,000 into his most re­cent cam­paigns.

He has not ad­mit­ted it, but ur­gent political need to dis­tance him

self from the util­i­ties may be one rea­son he be­came the most vo­cal critic of PG&E dur­ing the fires, de­scrib­ing the black­outs as “in­tol­er­a­ble” and “ir­re­spon­si­ble.” He’s adopted an idea ad­vo­cated here for sev­eral years: break up PG&E and pos­si­bly other util­i­ties. He even par­roted a sug­ges­tion made here dur­ing the en­ergy crunch: a state takeover of PG&E.

Act­ing a lit­tle pan­icked, New­som launched a $75 mil­lion pro­gram for state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments to mit­i­gate im­pacts of power shut­offs with­out say­ing just how the money would be spent. He also called for

PG&E — and by ex­ten­sion South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son and San Diego Gas & Elec­tric — to com­pen­sate cus­tomers whose power was shut off.

So far, only PG&E has agreed to any form of pay­ments or fu­ture dis­counts, de­tails not yet spec­i­fied. But the PUC mem­bers New­som ap­pointed early this year show no signs of re­vers­ing a multi-bil­lion dol­lar PG&E rate in­crease sched­uled to raise the av­er­age res­i­den­tial elec­tric bill by about $9 per month in Jan­uary.

So New­som acts like PG&E’s lead­ing critic after the black­outs, which caused some com­men­ta­tors to la­bel Cal­i­for­nia a

“third-world state.”

But at the same time, his reg­u­la­tory ap­pointees do noth­ing to pe­nal­ize that com­pany or Edi­son, whose equip­ment ap­par­ently also sparked some fall fires. Not only is the PUC al­low­ing PG&E’s rate in­crease to con­tinue as if the com­pany de­served it, but it OK’d charg­ing cus­tomers monthly for the Wild­fire Fund with­out so much as a pub­lic hear­ing.

So while New­som talks like a PG&E critic, his ap­pointees’ ac­tions say oth­er­wise. This re­al­ity ought to frighten him as he pon­ders what be­fell Davis.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected] New­som talks like a PG&E critic but his ap­pointees’ ac­tions say oth­er­wise

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