A California Public Utilities Commission hearing on PG&E’s safety culture was briefly shut down by protesters Thursday morning, who appeared to voice their concern that customers of the energy company would be forced to “bail out” the corporation. The privately-owned, for-profit gas and electricity company told state lawmakers last summer that payouts for its role in the Tubbs fire could exceed its insurance, which would force it to file for Chapter 11.
Investigations are still underway, but it appears that in addition to the Tubbs fire, PG&E could also be partly responsible for the catastrophic Camp fire which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 88 people earlier this month. The company was considering shutting off power to the affected area of Butte County but chose not to; now, damage to an active transmission tower near the start of the fire is being reviewed as its origin point. When the power did go out as a result of the fire, some residents assumed it was due to the aforementioned planned outage, and were not aware it was due to a fast-moving blaze. The loss of internet, landlines, and television complicated evacuation communications.
With the Camp fire fresh on everyone’s minds Thursday’s hearing got heated, fast. Private citizens and representatives from local nonprofits flooded the auditorium.
“For years and years, starting from the 1999 Pendola fire, PG&E burned 12,000 acres of land and destroyed 76 structures,” says Faiq Raza, of the San Francisco Democratic Socialist Chapter. “In 2010, you see the same thing happen with a gas explosion in San Bruno when a 55-year-old pipeline was blown up and eight people were murdered because of negligence. And then again with the 2017 North Bay fires, and now we’re in 2018 and we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.”
J Redwoods, co-founder of Mask Oakland, which distributed 85,000 n95 masks during the 11 days the Camp fire’s smoke blanketed the Bay Area, says that 88 people are dead at the hands of PG&E. “Volunteers are doing more than you are,” they told the commission. “Communities are doing more than you are. You need to act, or you need to get out of the way. I’m not having Paradise residents pay out of their electric bill for the people who destroyed their community.”
Dozens of public commenters called for CPUC to break up the utility company and have it taken over by the state.
“I think an investor-owned utility is inherently at odds with public safety,” says Sasha Perigo. “An independent report issued by this committee in 2012 found that after the San Bruno fire, funds that were intended for safety had been diverted to executive pay and shareholder bonuses.”
Others pointed out the irony that PG&E’s CEO, Geisha Williams, earns $7.6 million a year.
Thursday’s hearing was just one of many steps the CPUC will take before deciding whether or not to assist PG&E with its pending safety lawsuits. Unfortunately, the state doesn’t have a great history with standing up to the corporation; a bill authored by an East Bay assemblyperson whose son works for PG&E would give the company state-authorized bonds to settle the more than 200 lawsuits filed after the Tubbs fire.
But in the meantime, the community is only getting more organized. A coalition of groups — including Mask Oakland, Local Clean Energy Alliance, East Bay Clean Power Alliance, Communities for a Better Environment, Diablo Rising Tide, and Democratic Socialists of America — will hold a Wildfire Response Planning Meeting on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 1 p.m., at 955 Seventh St. in Oakland.
The coalition has also launched a petition to stop future bailouts, which can be found here.