Protesters Disrupt Another Meeting in Effort to Turn PG&E Public

Regulators are mulling a shakeup of the investor-owned utility, which is under increasing pressure to prevent wildfires.

Faiq Raza of the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America holds up signs at a regular meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco on Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Ida Mojadad)

If state regulators appeared to respond to the public’s anger toward PG&E by proposing potentially drastic changes to the utility, it took a step back on Thursday with shushing and silence.

The California Public Utilities Commission in a December memo proposed to either chuck out the investor-owned utility’s board, breaking it up into regional entities, or designate it as a publicly-owned utility. But as a little over a dozen protesters took over its San Francisco meeting Thursday morning, commissioners declined to discuss the issue further and moved into a closed session.

Similar to their reaction after the Camp Fire at a November CPUC meeting in which a protester was dragged out, public commenters renewed outrage over SB 901. The California Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill in August, allowing PG&E to pay off money owed by more than 200 lawsuits over wildfires by passing it onto monthly bills sent to customers. 

“You’re carrying water for a dirty corporation,” said Jessica Tovar of the Local Clean Energy Alliance. “We have to keep the momentum going in terms of the opposition to the PG&E bailout because this CPUC always represents the investor-owned utilities and leaves communities behind.”

Two months later, calls to prioritize people over shareholders and turn PG&E into a publicly-owned utility had stronger legs due to the memo proposing such a scenario. However, CPUC President Michael Picker kept talking over speakers who surpassed the one minute allowed during public comment with questions like “Can you wrap it up?,” including the reading of a letter by a woman who lost family members in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion

“I thought that it was really disrespectful,” says Sasha Perigo, adding that officials seem to mock commenters or paint their testimony as irrelevant to the matter at hand.

Perigo, who was at the November CPUC meeting, is focused on the financial impact on ratepayers, facing an average increase of 6.4 percent, who often don’t have a choice but to receive power from PG&E while its CEO, Geisha Williams, earns $7.6 million a year. But the principle of utilities being a basic public need also comes into play. 

“If the people rely on this, why isn’t this controlled by the public?” Perigo asked. To the commission, she said, “Anything that’s too big to fail should be publicly owned.”

Protesters shouted the names of people who died in the Camp Fire and chanted things like “Picker cheats, Picker lies, Picker ain’t got no alibi.” Shortly after comment closed, Picker ordered the room to clear so the commission could have a closed meeting.

The CPUC is receiving a fair amount of attention for its role in regulating the company charged with sparking several deadly wildfires in the state. As anger toward to PG&E’s role accumulates and its stocks plummet, officials are facing pressure to act.

Though Gov. Gavin Newsom was light on the details, he told reporters Tuesday that he had a meeting that day to “address the solvency of PG&E,” the Chronicle reports. Under the same legislation that protesters decried, the governor will appoint members to a new Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery.

While the CPUC wavers on how to regulate PG&E,  the courts are stepping in. On Wednesday, a federal judge in San Francisco proposed restricting the utility from using unsafe power lines during this year’s fire season and that it should be required to reinspect its grid, KQED reports.

“They operate under the assumption that no one knows what the CPUC does,” says Faiq Raza of the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America chapter. “We are watching them.”

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