California Today: How PG&E Lobbied for Wildfire Protection

Published on


January 8, 2019

Good morning.

After California’s deadliest wildfire all but wiped out the town of Paradise and killed 86 people in November, calls have risen for Pacific Gas & Electric to be held financially accountable for any role the company may have played in sparking the blaze.

More fires have been traced to equipment owned by the utilities, but in 2017, legislators moved to protect the companies from bearing the cost, arguing that the companies otherwise risked bankruptcy. Utilities are seeking the same thing for 2018.

My colleague Ivan Penn, who covers energy, wrote about how those moves by lawmakers followed extensive lobbying pushes by PG&E and other utilities. I asked him about what that means.

Jill Cowan: What are the stakes if PG&E goes bankrupt? Are we talking about a loss of power? Or would that come at a later point?

Ivan Penn: A PG&E bankruptcy would create challenges for the utility, its shareholders and customers, but those problems would relate more to economics. The operator of the state’s electric grid has said that a PG&E bankruptcy would not affect the reliability of the system. Bankruptcy could increase customer rates as the utility faced higher costs to borrow money.

You wrote that PG&E spent more lobbying in Sacramento in the first nine months of 2018 than the top spender in all of 2017. How did that stack up compared with the state’s other major utilities?

PG&E spent twice as much on lobbying as Southern California Edison and more than six times that of Sempra Energy.

Is it realistic to move away from the investor-owned utility model?

It is possible to move away from the investor-owned utility model. We see that in the growth in government-run programs, known as community choice. Regulators are reviewing possible changes in how PG&E operates.

Your story started with an anecdote about how, as wildfires ravaged the state, a dozen lawmakers were meeting with top power company officials at an annual retreat — on Maui. Californians might want to know whether their reps were there. Who were the legislators?

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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