PG&E Union Seeks Protection from Wildfire Liability

As protesters decry another state-sponsored PG&E bailout, union representatives oppose severe structural changes to the company.

PG&E crews work to replace telephone poles that were burned by the Camp Fire. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Since rumors of PG&E declaring bankruptcy arose in the wake of California’s wildfire liabilities, a few alternatives to the utility have been considered.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which has faced criticism for not regulating PG&E as strictly as it should, proposed drastic changes. In a December memo, it considered several scenarios, including replacing the company’s investor-owned board, breaking it up into regional subsidiaries, or even turning it into a publicly owned entity.

Weeks later, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees the company’s probation for the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, ordered a costly inspection of the entire grid — some 100,000 miles — before fire season officially begins in June.

San Francisco’s elected officials have also weighed in. Following Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s call for the city to purchase PG&E’s equipment, Supervisor Hillary Ronen introduced legislation Tuesday to establish a Green New Deal Fund that would create a public utility independent of the monopoly.

But the union representing 12,000 PG&E employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1245, says these options are the wrong way to go.

“We support public power, but just because you’re a publicly owned utility, that does not insulate you from making mistakes,” Tom Dalzell, the local union’s business manager, tells SF Weekly.

In a statement sent Tuesday following PG&E’s formal filing for Chapter 11 protection, Dalzell took staunch opposition to “any sale, break-up, municipalization, or change of ownership.” Doing so, he argued, would negatively affect the safety and stability of delivering gas and electricity in Northern California.

PG&E formally filed for bankruptcy — as it did in 2001 — just after midnight on Tuesday, estimating about $50 billion in liabilities and $71 billion in assets. In an emergency meeting hours earlier, the CPUC gave the utility the go-ahead to seek up to $10 billion in loans.

Public commenters challenged the approval. A number of them have protested multiple CPUC meetings to demand PG&E face financial responsibility, while simultaneously calling for an end to the investor-owned utility.

They face some tough challenges. In August, the California Legislature overwhelmingly approved Senate Bill 901, allowing the utility to pass on the cost of wildfire-related lawsuits to ratepayers. (Earlier this month, Cal Fire determined that the Tubbs Fire was sparked by private equipment not owned by PG&E, spiking its stock value.)

Dalzell says the company’s financial woes are clearly owed to unfair lawsuits from recent wildfires, which have become increasingly deadly and destructive. But thousands of employees are ultimately concerned about maintaining their collectively bargained work rights and that PG&E will sell off its gas service to get through the bankruptcy.

“There absolutely has to be liability reform for PG&E to emerge,” says Dalzell, adding that employees “go to work every day and do the best they can. This is a distraction, and we’ll get through it.”

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