Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) provides power to 16 million Californians living throughout its 70,000 square mile service area, making it the largest electricity provider in the country. It is also the most dangerous. PG&E has caused 1,500 wildfires in the state in the last six years alone, including the deadliest in recorded California history, the Camp Fire. PG&E has avoided recourse for far too long, and the recent punishment it has received is far too lenient. Their negligence is criminal and their attempts to appease victims have been pathetic and lazy. Governor Gavin Newsom has called for a shutdown of the company and the transition of their assets to government entities, and he’s right to do so.
Investigations show that PG&E power lines breaking is a common cause of wildfires. PG&E has massive amounts of infrastructure in desperate need of repairs and updates, and yet the company has routinely neglected to do so. In the case of the Belridge fire in 2019, PG&E had been notified of a damaged line months before the fire yet chose not to mark it as a priority, leading to the destruction of 53 acres. This comes a year after a broken line ignited the devastating Camp Fire, which burned over 150,000 acres of land and leveled 18,000 buildings. One would think such a tragedy would cause the company to be more vigilant, but PG&E is a slow learner. Company executives clearly cannot be trusted to manage their massive infrastructure and must forfeit it for the safety of others.
PG&E’s negligence also caused massive power outages. In October 2019, the company shut off over 800,000 customers’ power to prepare for a forecasted high-wind event that had the potential to start fires or make existing fires worse. While this proactive measure may have reduced the damage from some fires, the company should have updated and repaired its power lines over the years rather than allow them to become decrepit and hazardous. If this had been the case, hundreds of thousands of Californians wouldn’t have to go without power, unexpectedly and indefinitely, while fires rage around them just because the wind picked up.
PG&E has murdered Californians with gas line explosions and fires for years, but the massive scale of the Camp Fire brings greater attention, particularly legal attention, to the company. On March 23, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of illegal starting of a fire and has been fined $4 million as a result. This is ridiculously low. The Camp Fire burned $13 billion of property, and that figure doesn’t take into consideration the relocation and funeral costs or the loss of jobs and incomes victims endured. In December 2019, PG&E was fined $13.5 billion as the result of a class action lawsuit brought against them by all their victims dating back to 2015, but even a weighty punishment like that offers no guarantee that PG&E will work to avert the next tragedy. Much of the settlement will also be paid using company stock, a typical corporate trick to get out of cash payments.
The company is also a financial disaster, recently concluding a yearslong bankruptcy process. Governor Newson has been leveraging the bankruptcy to replace much of the board of the company and install measures that would lead to a state takeover of the company if they fail to meet certain safety requirements. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has forced Newsom to concede many demands, and PG&E will likely be bailing itself out of bankruptcy using state wildfire funds. If the state is the entity saving the company, the state should take the company over entirely.
PG&E has time and time again revealed its utter incompetence as a power provider and has repeatedly put lives at risk and ended many others. They cannot be trusted to solve these issues themselves as they have neglected them for years on end all the while being a massive financial burden to customers and the state. Rather than bail the company out again and again, the state should take the company over to ensure repair of power lines and avert future disasters.