Deadly blazes are the new normal for our state, and this has reinvigorated discussion over how to address climate change. But besides a changing climate, California residents have begun to notice another pattern behind these infernos: the negligent, cost-cutting habits of California’s investor-owned utility, PG&E.
CalFire, the key agency responsible for combating wildfires, has found PG&E at fault for 16 of the deadly blazes in the last two years alone. This has resulted in PG&E teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, a barrage of lawsuits, and the state utility commission now considering to break up the utility. But the commission shouldn’t stop at breaking up PG&E. They should nationalize it, bringing the utility under local, democratic control.
When observed individually, it becomes apparent that each of the disastrous incidents caused by the cost-cutting procedures of PG&E are tied to profit-driven decision making. Perhaps this is because following safety protocols, paying for costly upgrades, and keeping check on the maintenance of their own infrastructure runs in direct conflict with PG&E’s ultimate goal: delivering profits to its shareholders.
And while PG&E consistently fails to invest money it receives from ratepayers into maintaining its own infrastructure, it does pay it’s CEO a lavish salary. In 2017, while wildfires caused by PG&E’s cost-cutting practices ravaged the north bay and killed over forty people, Geisha Williams, PG&E CEO, received a salary of $8.56 million. PG&E should be investing the money from ratepayers into infrastructure maintenance and safety, rather than stuff the pockets of their shareholders to boost corporate profits.
So long as utilities remain in the hands of unaccountable, private interests, there will be an inherent conflict between profit and reinvestment, in which profit will always win out, even if it is at the expense of public safety. That is why the CPUC should reject any attempt to bailout PG&E, which would shoulder the costs of rebuilding our communities onto the ratepayers. Instead, we should take the utility out of the hands of privatized, corporate control and into democratic, local ownership.
— Mark Malouf, Sonoma