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The Mercury News: California must hold PG&E accountable for role in fires

November 17, 2018

Californians will have to wait to discover the cause of the tragic Camp Fire that has claimed at least 48 lives and burned nearly the entire city of Paradise. But they shouldn’t have to wait to make PG&E more accountable for the utility’s failure to properly maintain its equipment.

It’s unacceptable that the California Legislature continues to enable a utility business model that favors putting profits before safety. Enough is enough.

It’s no secret that PG&E went all-out with its successful lobbying effort last summer, spending $1.7 million over three months to pressure legislators to reduce the utility’s liability for wildfire damages caused by its equipment. That doesn’t include the money PG&E spent on a major advertising campaign designed to convince Californians of how much the utility values safety.

The facts tell another story.

Cal Fire has determined that PG&E’s power lines and other equipment were responsible for 16 of the wine country fires last year that caused $10 billion in damages. The majority of those wildfires were caused by tree limbs making contact with power lines. The agency has yet to issue a final report on the cause of the Tubbs Fire, which killed 24 people.

Californians shouldn’t forget that a state audit by the PUC revealed that PG&E had violated electricity-grid safety regulations at least 11 times in the years prior to the 2017 fires. Nor that the PUC reported that PG&E had failed to conduct timely inspections and fulfill work orders required by the state regulator in thousands of instances over a five-year period. At the same time, PG&E was producing $1 billion in profits every year.

In its defense, PG&E is spending additional funding on safety than in previous years. The impact of climate change has also made its job more challenging. But the Legislature’s action does too little to give the utility the incentive to change its ways.

It’s a safe assumption that PG&E will continue its intense lobbying efforts in Sacramento. The question is whether the public will pressure the Legislature enough to implement the change Californians need.

— The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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