Ben Boyce


Let’s make PG&E a public utility

Posted on November 6, 2019 by Ben Boyce

Here in Northern California, we are getting adapted to the new normal of an annual fall firestorm season. I have developed an instinct for sensing the impending signs of the witching season: bone-dry air, balmy temperatures, and the dreaded high winds. This cycle has existed for centuries but climate disruption has elevated the phenomenon to a new and scary level. When all three conditions converge, the whole place lights up all at once and fire consumes everything in its path. 

 It is cruel trolling by the Trump EPA, at this time of crisis, to use the power of the federal government to do a frontal legal assault on the state of California’s laudable environmental leadership and participation in a regional cap-and-trade program that was having modest success. Global warming is why fire season in California has become an annual Halloween nightmare. Rolling back regulation is madness.

 Polite words fail me at this kind of bullying provocation by the industry hacks sacking the EPA, appointed by Trump. The time for persuasion with these mean-spirited Republican reactionaries and mercenary oil company environmental vandals is long past; we need to remove them from political power across the board. They all have to go.

 The “disaster capitalism” dynamic can work both ways. Market failure by giant corporate enterprises represents a golden opportunity to quickly reverse the privatization drive of the neo-liberal era over the last 40 years. PG&E is in bankruptcy again, after having previously been bailed out in 2001 after the Enron scandal.

 That fiasco, based on the fundamentally flawed neo-liberal capitalist premise of running our energy grid as a private corporation rather than as a public service, cost the state about $45 billion, in 2001 dollars. That financial disaster led directly to a political catastrophe with a successful stealth right-wing campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis. The same Republican playbook has been dusted off to try to dent Governor Newsom. The conservative syndicated columnist (Press Democrat) Dan Walters has already floated the “blame the fires on the governor” theme. Look for it.

Why would we repeat the same error? Now is the time to fundamentally rethink how we manage critical infrastructure like the energy grid. Our critical energy network needs to be removed from the private market and transformed into a responsible public utility. 

 We can no longer afford to have several tiers of takers at the top siphoning off the cash: the oligarchs, the rich speculative investors, and hedge fund managers with big shares in PG&E. Their incessant demand for annual dividends and outlandish bonuses keeps skimming off the ratepayer dollars that should have been plowed into improving the quality and resilience of the network. A public utility would have spent the “dividends” on installing underground pipes for vulnerable transmission lines. Instead, that money went to paying off plutocrats with private islands and offshore bank accounts. 

This time around, let’s get it right. Public control of the energy grid is the only way that that sector can work properly. PG&E’s crisis is our opportunity. The state can buy the company 10 cents on the dollar, placing the greatest burden of the bankruptcy on speculators and hedge funds. Governor Newsom has warned PG&E that the state will step in and take over if the management can’t get it sorted out by next year.  He will have my vote again for sure if he makes that bold move. We should encourage this new tough talk. It looks good on Gavin.

Finally, I want to issue a caution for some of my less politically educated comrades on the left. Blaming and shaming this or that suit in the PG&E executive suites is not accomplishing anything. From the perspective of a structural dialectical analysis, the particular individuals who are hired to run that corporation are not the source of the problem. 

It’s not that the PG&E executives are especially wicked characters; they are just a product of capitalist business schools and its ruthless culture. They are just doing their job. If the utility goes public, they are out of that job.

That same appeal to reason and empathy applies to PG&E line staff especially. The hard-working IBEW union members who drive the blue trucks and go out in the middle of the night to restore your power are not the problem. They are working class heroes who do a great job. We need to stay focused on the main line: make PG&E a public utility.


5 thoughts on “Let’s make PG&E a public utility

  1. Remember Darius Anderson has profited big time because he is a lobbyist for PG&E and at the same time controls the news in our local papers!
    Also I believe his out of scale hotel project adjacent to our historic Plaza has surfaced once again for review this month.

  2. Even if PG&E were to become a public utility it would still face the same huge hurdles:
    1. Budget
    2. Management (current or new)
    3. PUC / Legislature
    4. Ratepayers
    The only thing eliminated would be stockholders who are the only passive element in the picture.
    If the goal is to eliminate power outages the power lines will have to go underground. Who pays for that? Ratepayers. millions of miles of power lines, 10+ years and Billions of dollars.
    There is no free lunch. But free beer tomorrow. Good Luck with that.

  3. A state run public utility would be the ultimate disaster. We would be burdened with overpaid public employees with rich pension plans ans life time medical. Politicians would look at it like a cash cow. Service would not improve and fires would continue. Since when have public employees been held accountable? The private sector will solve this problem as they do most problems. Keep pushing for alternative energy.

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