PG&E's tragically misplaced priorities challenged

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Why does PG&E CEO Peter Darbee still have a job?

Throughout the spring political season, we at the Guardian argued there were more important things on which Pacific Gas & Electric could be spending $45 million – the amount it spent on Prop. 16, its losing effort to kill public power programs in California – such as infrastructure maintenance, lowering its high rates, or adding more renewable projects to its dirty energy portfolio.

Now that the deadly gas explosion in San Bruno has been linked to internal company warnings that PG&E's 52-year-old line was dangerously in need of replacement and that it failed to heed customer complaints about smelling gas in the air for weeks before the explosion, it appears that the company could finally be called to account for its misplaced priorities.

State Sen. Mark Leno is calling a joint hearing into the matter before the Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, and the Utilities Committee. "The current leadership at PG&E has lost its way. Nobody is minding the ship,” Leno told the Guardian. He said that he's furious about the explosion and PG&E's shoddy safety record.
"Enough with the self-initiated, self-serving, self-funded political campaigns," he told us. "Enough with the illegal attempts to interfere with community choice aggregation in Marin. Enough with the mad rush to smart meters. How about focusing on the current mission -- to provide gas and electricity safely reliably and affordably, without death and destruction?"

Ironically, it's possible that PG&E's efforts to prevent a greater public role into how energy is provided to Californians could end up resulting in far more public oversight over a utility that has put more energy into regular political campaigns – from this year's statewide campaign to similarly over-the-top spending to kill public power proposals recently in San Francisco, Yolo, and Sacramento counties – than the energy business. Leno told us the model of the private regulated utility no longer works. "This hybrid creation of sort of public, kind of private, state regulated but not really is a creation that no longer functions."

Meanwhile, while the PG&E-friendly San Francisco Chronicle has yet to really connect the dots on this disaster, other mainstream San Francisco voices are. For example, Christine Pelosi – daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – yesterday penned a piece for the Huffington Post that explicitly connects the Prop. 16 campaign to the deadly explosion, entitled. “Deadly Priorities: Why Did PG&E Spend Millions on Politics, Instead of Pipelines?"

She closes the piece with an apt question, one that Leno's committee will hopefully answer: “The San Bruno tragedy is a clarion call to rebuild America and insist on ratepayer say on utility pay. I think most taxpayers would reject deadly priorities that put politics over pipelines and choose repairs to the ground literally crumbling beneath our feet, and most ratepayers would choose crumbling infrastructure repairs over political campaigns. Wouldn't you?”

Yes, we would.