Opinion: Another meaningless big bucks utility payout
The settlement looked big when announced in early April by the district attorneys of six Northern California counties where huge wildfires caused by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. did more than $700 million worth of damage last year and in 2019.
It’s another example of a penalty that looks severe but has very little actual import.
For one thing, none of the $55 million PG&E will pay goes to homeowners or merchants from places like the Gold Rush era town of Greenville, completely incinerated in last summer’s Dixie Fire, which burned for more than three months across several counties.
There was hope the prosecution, which lodged criminal charges against PG&E for the 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County, might send some utility executives to prison for the first time over the fatally flawed decisions they made, which led to both the Kincade and Dixie fires and 31 others over the last few years.
Like executives of Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric after their firms caused huge recent fires, PG&E bosses once again escape responsibility,
In fact, new PG&E chief executive Patti Poppe collected almost as much in stock options and salary last year as the company will pay in the new settlement. What’s more, the PG&E admits no guilt.
It’s the newest part of a longtime pattern which sees utilities completely unpunished for misspending $65 billion in customer payments earmarked between 1955 and 2005 for maintenance. That money went to executive bonuses and other goodies. Using it properly might have seen newer power lines rise up and old trees and other vegetation cut back in areas where they started recent fires.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who talked tough while filing charges against PG&E last year, now says she got her constituents and folks in nearby counties a great deal.
Instead of $55 million, she said in hailing the settlement as a great achievement, a criminal conviction for PG&E — which would have been another in a series dating back to the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion that killed eight — would have produced a $9.6 million fine at most. The money, she noted, would have gone to the state treasury rather than to local non-profits and county departments that will share in the new payout over the next five years.
But what’s $11 million a year spread across six counties compared to real justice, which might have seen some actual people do some real prison time for misdeeds they perpetrated on their jobs?
To PG&E, it’s peanuts, a little spilled milk for which no tears will ever be shed. Not when corporate income is already certain to rise more than $974 million this year from an interim rate increase it received in February, with much more to follow later this year, when the company’s routine rate increase case is decided by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
The new settlement is much like a $125 million “fine” the PUC assessed against PG&E, also in February, for its negligence in the Kincade blaze. Much of that alleged penalty will go for maintenance work, like undergrounding or updating some power lines, cutting back vegetation and inspecting facilities — all things that should have been done regularly over many years with the money collected from customers, but left mostly undone for decades.
The questions about the newest settlement are simple: Is a few million dollars in reimbursements to fire departments and other local agencies really worth more than a criminal conviction, or several of those? Especially if those convictions might have involved a real criminal or several, not merely their corporation? And is a huge utility company once again using its legal firepower to outwit local officials and get off essentially scot-free?
For sure, PG&E will barely notice the $11 million per year it will have to pay between now and 2027. Executives responsible for all the bad decisions that led to many fires and the more than 100 deaths they caused will continue in their jobs as if nothing happened, while the victims’ lives and their families’ have been decimated.
If that’s not a mockery of justice, it’s hard to see what would be.
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Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.