PG&E is on the Loose Again

PG&E’s probation was imposed 5 years ago after the fiery and deadly San Bruno gas explosion, ended last week.  Judge Alsup’s final remarks were grim, and as tragic as the Prince’s last words in Romeo and Juliet: “All are punished”.

What were the terms of probation he had been asked to oversee? In Judge Alsup’s statement, “Rehabilitation of a criminal offender remains the paramount goal of probation. During these five years of criminal probation, we have tried hard to rehabilitate PG&E. As the supervising district judge, however, I must acknowledge failure.”

An ordinary citizen on probation is admonished not to break any laws, deal in guns, drugs, and so on. Probation officers supervise the probationers with weekly visits. At the discovery of a single violation, the probationer is remanded to prison, with an additional burden of time on their sentence.

During its probation, PG&E might as well have been sniping concertgoers in Las Vegas or dealing fentanyl, when you count the deaths they caused.  Judge Alsop counted 113. In his discussion, he goes on to list the lengthy rap PG&E has accumulated in fires started and towns and forests destroyed, while on probation.

He concludes,

“So, in these five years, PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California. Almost all of the survivors of these fires are still waiting for compensation. Many hundreds who lost their homes endure in travel trailers because they have not yet been compensated. Meanwhile, PG&E management pays itself handsome salaries and bonuses, all paid from revenues collected from customers. This unfairness should tug at our conscience.”

According to Reclaim Our Power, a group that watchdogs the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E’s hedge funds “have taken billions in profits, while survivors of the fires it caused continue to be given slow, incomplete access to funds to recover damages caused by PG&E”.

PG&E spokesperson James Noonan claimed that the company had become “fundamentally safer” during the probation term. In response to this, the Judge cited PG&E’s “stubborn resistance” to confessing responsibility. He describes the origins of the Dixie Fire, reported twice, and firsthand, by a PG&E Troubleman in a timely fashion, who then,  nine weeks later, at the evidentiary hearing, refused to stand by his report, and suggested that lightning was the culprit.

“Sadly, during all five years of probation, PG&E has refused to accept responsibility for its actions until convenient to its cause or until it is forced to do so,” reflects the Judge.

In fact, PG&E has the people of California over a barrel, since our entire economy is based on electricity. People howl when the power is turned off. They need to cook, to see, to heat and cool, to engage with the world. PG&E fire victims have been given stock in lieu of cash, as reparations. Their own well-being is therefore pitted against their sense of justice. PG&E spokespeople argue that they should be on the side of the corporation (“Don’t you want the lights to come on?”)

Thus, claiming both victim and general public support, Newsom’s Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety handed PG&E its safety verification certificate, stating that it is “working toward becoming safer and improving its operations and culture”.

The certificate will allow PG&E access to the $21 billion fire insurance plan provided by the state, as well as to charge ratepayers for the cleanup of their wildfire costs. And PG&E will  be free to continue to be a menace to California, as forecast by Judge Alsup,

Here, on the remotest outpost of the empire, on the Lost Coast, people are not as defenseless. Many are completely off the grid or have backup generators. Most heat with wood. And, because we are relatively wet, foggy, and cooler in the summer, we have less fear of fire.

However, like the rest of PG&E’s realm, during the last 4 months, we have been besieged by Enhanced Vegetation Management, PG&E’s response to probation requirements.

Judge Alsup had something to say about this feature of the menace posed by PG&E:

“One systemic cause, in my view, is that for decades, PG&E has been outsourcing to independent contractors its statutory responsibility for finding and removing hazard trees and for maintaining vegetation clearances. A large part of the wildfire problem, as the Monitor has pointed out. has been sloppy inspection and clearance work (almost exclusively outsourced to independent contractors).”

Indeed.  With possibly hundreds of private contractors (Mattole Forest Defense counted 50 companies along the Humboldt Redwoods State Park border) from all over the country, many unskilled, the majority non-English-speaking,  PG&E has decreased our fire resistance, despoiled our roadways, damaged our riparians, decreased shade, prepared the soil for fuel load recrudescence, and thrown huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  Many houses now appear to be intentionally perched on funeral pyres.

Judge Alsup surmises that PG&E outsources because it’s cheaper, (no benefits required to be paid to and for workers) and because it transfers responsibility. In concentrating on their bottom line, PG&E has allowed for fatally “sloppy inspection and clearance work”. The workers are ignorant of the ecosystems, hydrology and habitat exigencies here. Many cannot distinguish between tree species. They are not working to reduce fire risk or greenhouse gases, only to reduce PG&E liability. There is no incentive to understand the impacts of their work. They are mercenaries.

Mill Creek Forest, an old-growth preserve on the Lost Coast, was saved from logging through money and efforts provided by the community. It is now BLM-managed. When PG&E began marking Mill Creek Forest trees for destruction, the community protested, with apparent success, until a few days ago, when roaming forest defenders discovered that two enormous trees, far from the power lines, but perched over the salmon-bearing Mattole River and no fire danger, had been felled by a departing crew.

Are they paid by the tree? Or by the size, or poundage, of the tree? It was vandalism, pure and simple.

Judge Alsup’s feeling of helplessness and failure is poignant. He laments the failure of the US District Attorney’s office to extend PG&E’s probation. He reflects on the expedient of a corporate break-up, substituting smaller more manageable units, calling to mind electricity cooperatives that exist around the country, formed by farmers or municipalities, who have bought out their contracts with utilities in order to have freedom with renewables, or simply take better care of their members.

Many blame Newsom’s administration for micromanaging the supposedly independent California Public Utilities Commission in PG&E’s favor, pointing to campaign support ($280,400 in Newsom’s case) to elected officials. Money certainly rules, a fact also substantiated by corporate attempts around the country to squash the rooftop solar movement.

As with voting rights and multiple other issues regarding the definition of freedom, the face of strong-willed and single-minded corporate power is emerging ever more boldly through the warp and woof of the laws we have designed to structure our democracy. For the sake of ourselves and future generations, freedom-loving governments must pull themselves together to protect the entire scope of human rights, or, like PG&E’s negligence of potentially controllable fires, democracy will go up in smoke.

Ellen Taylor can be reached at