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Failure to adequately regulate utilities helped fuel CA wildfires

Sat, 10/21/2017 - 03:41
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The fires that laid waste to California’s Wine Country and at least 42 lives were not merely the product of a changing climate and extra-heated winds. 

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Corruption can kill.

The fires that laid waste to California’s Wine Country and at least 42 lives were not merely the product of a changing climate and extra-heated winds. 

Early reports suggest the failure of Gov. Jerry Brown and his appointees to adequately regulate our public utilities to prevent such fires also fueled the fast-moving flames.

Investigators are examining downed power wires and exploding transformers from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which were reported on multiple 911 calls, by PG&E workers and by witnesses as the immediate cause of many blazes.

Reports from fire responders, residents and PG&E itself also point to the flames spreading so quickly because of overgrown trees too close to the utility’s power lines.

The Butte Fire in 2015, which destroyed more than 500 homes and killed two people in Calaveras County, was caused by PG&E’s failure to cut back a pine tree that hit a power line and sparked the fire. 

PG&E’s negligence to identify the weakened trees led to bipartisan legislation in 2016, passed unanimously by both houses of the Legislature, to reduce the risks of wildfire from overhead utility lines by clearing out dead trees. The bill required the Public Utilities Commission to identify and map high-risk wildfire hotspots due to overhead utility lines, taking into consideration local governments’ concerns, so that utilities would have to step up their mitigation efforts in those areas. 

Unfortunately, Gov. Brown shockingly vetoed that fire prevention legislation, claiming that the state Public Utilities Commission and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had a process in place. The furious spread of fires along trees in the path of power lines last week lays naked that claim. 

PG&E itself put the blame on “hurricane-strength winds” and “millions of trees weakened by years of drought,” contributing “to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines.”

In fact, winds were only half the level of hurricane force, peaking at 30 miles per hour when the Tubbs Fire started, according to the Bay Area News Group, but overgrown trees as fuel for the fire were all too real. Attorney Frank Pitre, who sued PG&E over the Butte Fire, said it’s “the utility’s very responsibility to identify a weakened tree and remove it before it strikes a power line.”

Unfortunately, cronyism in the Brown administration has allowed a long-standing culture of neglect at PG&E to continue undeterred because PG&E and its brethren fear no real consequences.

PG&E has long been the darling of the Brown administration, supplying his top aide, Nancy McFadden, from its executive ranks, as well as his former Cabinet secretary. It’s little wonder the unanimous fire cleanup bill was vetoed when McFadden, Brown’s top legislative adviser, was a former senior vice president at PG&E who left the company with a $1 million payout. 

The veto came despite the fact that explosive electric power equipment is among the top three causes of California wildfires. 

Brown has also stacked his Public Utilities Commission with PG&E and utility partisans in the wake of corruption scandals that should have shaken the commission to its core. 

PG&E’s former lobbyist was caught in a pay-to-play scheme with former PUC President Michael Peevey, but Brown did all he could to support Peevey and keep the pro-utility commission pro-utility. “He gets things done,” Brown said of Peevey, after the scandal broke, calling him “a very effective leader.” 

We often think of public corruption as an academic, antiseptic issue. In this case, it has real-world consequences. Brown’s refusal to get tough on PG&E and other utilities has led to repeated safety issues that endanger lives.

Consider the San Bruno explosion in 2010 that claimed eight lives and leveled neighborhoods. PG&E neglected gas pipelines and kept shoddy maintenance records. It even took ratepayer money intended for gas pipeline repairs and used it for executive bonuses and shareholder dividends. Emails showed PG&E’s lobbyist worked surreptitiously with PUC commissioners to pick its own PUC judge to hear the case. It took a federal conviction this year to reveal PG&E was a criminal. 

City officials in San Bruno still wonder why no one at the company was ever punished. Under PUC President Michael Picker, a top former aide of Brown’s, the commission continues to stonewall the release of documents related to the blast.

Of course, PG&E has been generous to Brown and his causes as well, shelling out six-figure contributions over his term. 

The irony is Brown has made combatting climate change his signature issue, but his hostility to regulation has made California more vulnerable than ever to its ravages. 

That’s a lesson the next governor should learn as prerequisite for the job.