The Mercury News
Time for serious consideration of PG&E takeover
California must get serious about planning for a PG&E takeover.
It’s becoming clearer every day that Pacific Gas & Electric cannot meet the safety standards established by the California Public Utilities Commission for the utility company’s emergence from bankruptcy.
The CPUC set a six-step enforcement process last year that would lead to state takeover of PG&E in the event of serious operational or safety lapses.
The utility in April triggered Step 1 by failing to prioritize clearing vegetation on its highest-risk power lines in 2020.
Step 2 would be invoked if a gas or electric incident resulting from PG&E failure to follow the utility commission’s safety rules destroys 1,000 or more dwellings or commercial structures.
PG&E said on July 19 that its equipment may have started the Dixie Fire, which is now more than twice the size of San Jose and has burned 67 structures. The fire threatens another 12,000 structures, according to Cal Fire. PG&E revealed Tuesday that it also might be responsible for the smaller Fly Fire that started July 22 and eventually merged with the Dixie Fire.
If Step 2 is invoked, PG&E would be required to create a Corrective Action Plan. If that fails to stop the destruction, Step 3 calls for appointment of an independent, third-party monitor to oversee PG&E’s safety programs. Subsequent failures would eventually lead to state takeover by a nonprofit, public-benefit corporation called Golden State Energy.
Given PG&E’s sorry history, Californians should be asking the CPUC why it didn’t start with Step 3 of the process. Let’s not forget that the utility is a convicted felon responsible for the deaths of 111 people in the past decade and the destruction of tens of thousands of homes.
Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said Thursday that her office would pursue criminal charges against PG&E over the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings near Redding. The Zogg Fire started when a pine tree hit a PG&E power line.
The utility lost any remaining trust of ratepayers when it admitted to a federal judge in 2019 that it did not meet its wildfire safety plan risk-reduction targets for that year but went ahead with its request for approval of $187.8 million in bonuses for 400 senior employees, an average of $469,500 per person. That came in the wake of the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, destroyed 12,637 homes and 4,201 businesses, and left most of Paradise’s 26,000 residents homeless. PG&E later jettisoned the bonus after a barrage of protests.
Given the state’s performance during the pandemic, Californians are right to be leery about the prospect of a state takeover of a utility that serves 16 million customers in 48 counties across Northern and Central California. But, as PG&E continues to demonstrate it cannot safely provide reliable power, legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom must begin planning for taking control.