PG & E probe launched after raucous PUC meeting.
Volleys of criticism unleashed over utility’s role in lethal wildfires
State regulators on Thursday launched a probe into PG&E’s corporate structure and commitment to safety during a meeting disrupted by protests over the utility’s operations in the wake of deadly wildfires in Northern California and a fatal explosion in San Bruno.
Even though the state Public Utilities Commission on Thursday ordered PG&E to adopt 60 recommendations from an independent consultant to improve its safety culture, speakers during the meeting suggested that the commission has coddled PG& E rather than regulate the embattled utility.
But PG& E said it already had enacted many of the changes.
“We’ve implemented the majority of their recommendations already, and are on track to implement many morewithin the next year,” PG&E said in a prepared release.
Bay Area residents spoke for well over one hour to the five commissioners, with repeated demands that PG&E should not be bailed out. The speakers urged the commission and state politicians to allow PG& E to tumble into bankruptcy if the company can’t cope with its financial exposure from wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
“The people of California are fed up with the
continuing death and destruction caused by PG&E and the other utilities,” said Steve Zeltzer, an official with United Public Workers for Action. “The PUC is a pawn of the utilities. Utility executives should be in jail for what they have done. They continue to kill people. Let’s take the profit out of utilities. These profiteers don’t give a damn about the people they are killing.”
Commission president Michael Picker vowed to open a fresh investigation into PG& E with an eye to a possible restructuring of the company or replacing some members of the board of directors.
“PG& E appears to not have a clear vision for its safety programs,” Picker said in summarizing part of the PG& E safety culture report. “PG& E pursues many programs without having an idea of how they fit together. This is deeply troubling. It keeps me awake at night.”
During a federal trial after the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, prosecutors argued that the utility put profits ahead of safety, a corporate philosophy that eventually led to the blast that killed eight and destroyed a neighborhood. PG& E is now a convicted felon due to crimes it committed before and after the San Bruno explosion in 2010.
Questions about PG&E’s commitment to safety have erupted again following a series of fatal infernos that scorched the North Bay Wine Country and nearby regions in October 2017 and this year’s lethal blazes in Butte County that destroyed the town of Paradise.
Several speakers were critical of the compensation package for PG& E chief executive officer Geisha Williams, who received $8.6 million in total direct pay, including $6.5 million in stock awards, during the time the company was sentenced for six felonies linked to the San Bruno blast and its equipment was involved in multiple Wine Country infernos.
San Francisco- based PG&E has raised the specter of bankruptcy if state officials fail to help the company ward off its financial exposure from the wildfires.
“We do not want to bail out PG& E. We don’t want to take the fall for PG& E. It’s their fault,” said Margaret Lewis, a member of Communities for a Better Environment in Oakland. “They have made irresponsible corporate decisions by putting profits over people. Let them go bankrupt.”
The PUC also came under harsh criticism from several speakers.
“We need to stop protecting PG&E, we need to stop protecting the PUC,” said Jessica Tovar of East Bay Clean Power Alliance. “The P in PUC stands for profits, or maybe the P stands for PG& E. No PG& E bailout. We will not take this … any longer.”