PG&E: First Say It Did Wrong—Then Investigate

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

My initial inclination was to question Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rush to judgment in writing a letter that called for an inquiry and review of PG&E for the extensive Northern California power shut off while at the same time pronouncing the company guilty of wrong doing. It seemed another example in this day and age of discarding due process. 

But the governor had reason to be angry. So let’s reflect.

Certainly, PG&E is not a sympathetic character given its history of previous poor performance and dangerous actions. The investor owned utility is an easy clay pigeon to shoot at. The wide-ranging blackout inconvenienced millions of customers, made life difficult for so many and damaged businesses.

 Clearly, a governor has a right to be outraged on behalf of the people he serves.

In a letter Public Utilities Commission president Marybel Batjer, Gov. Newsom called for a review of the utility’s actions but also flatly stated, “It was clear from the start that PG&E implemented this extraordinary measure (turning off the power) with astounding neglect and lack of preparation.” 

Then why bother with a review? The governor made up his mind. While he made a point of trying to keep PG&E solvent enough to function and deliver power under the duress or liabilities from earlier fires, suitors to take over the company from governments to hedge funds, and flat out bankruptcy, Newsom added to PG&E’s bottom line financial stress by proposing in his letter that PG&E offer compensation of $100 per customer affected by the power outage and $250 for each small business.

 The governor has grounds for his rebuke in that PG&E admitted that it was not adequately prepared for the blackout scenario. Newsom falls back on San Diego Gas & Electric’s preparation on dealing with potential blackouts, which the governor says is a model for other utilities.

 Yet, PG&E’s president said the company did the right thing in the power shut off to protect against fires and to save lives. In Northern California, while the winds whipped there was no fire and no lives lost. The company claims examination of equipment found many instances of equipment damage that could have sparked a fire if the power was turned on.

 In Southern California, the Saddleridge Fire might have been started by a Southern California Edison electrical transmission line. Edison shut off some power in preparation for the Santa Ana winds but far less than PG&E. Did Edison do the right thing? It is being investigated.

Despite PG&E not acting quickly enough recently to fix fire hazards, in this instance, with the report of high winds, did it do the right thing? That’s what the review is for.

 A current running though the body politic seems to blame first, ask questions later. Due process has been often ignored when accusations fly.

 Such a situation already occurred with the power shut off. News reports coming from the blackout said that a senior citizen died of a heart attack when the power was shut down preventing his breathing machine from working. It was only later, after a coroner’s investigation proved otherwise, did officials agree that the power shut off did not lead to the man’s death.

 Before the autopsy results were reported, Gov. Newsom was asked if he attributed the man’s death to the PG&E blackout. He said he supported the Sheriff Department’s investigation into the matter.

 While the governor is rightly incensed on behalf of his constituents, he should wait on the PUC investigation into PG&E before he passes judgment.

 

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