PD Editorial: PG&E’s day of reckoning is near

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

If California had a three strikes law for corporations, PG&E, a twice-convicted felon, could be looking at some hard time.

Strike one: A U.S. District Court jury in San Francisco convicted PG&E of five counts of violating pipeline safety rules and one count of obstructing a federal investigation of a gas pipeline explosion in 2010 that killed eight people, injured dozens more and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno.

Strike two: PG&E pleaded guilty in Butte County to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter — one for each of the 84 people who perished in the 2018 Camp fire, which nearly wiped out the entire town of Paradise.

On Tuesday, prosecutors in Sonoma County filed five felonies and 28 misdemeanors against PG&E for its role in causing the Kincade fire, which burned 120 square miles, incinerated 174 homes, injured six firefighters and prompted an unprecedented evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from Healdsburg all the way to the coast in 2019.

If the company is convicted, it will be a three-time felon.

Because PG&E isn’t a person, no one will go to jail. Any fine almost certainly will amount to pocket change for California’s largest investor-owned utility; the combined penalties in the previous criminal cases was just $6.5 million for a company with $18.5 billion in revenue last year.

That isn’t to say criminal charges filed by Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch are a wasted effort.

PG&E’s rap sheet details a history of negligence resulting in property damage, injuries and deaths.

State regulators have fined PG&E time and again for failing to maintain equipment and trim vegetation near power lines. Civil settlements for recent fires, including the 2017 Tubbs fire, exceed $25 billion. Yet investigators keep tracing wildfires to PG&E, so it falls to prosecutors to hold the wayward company accountable.

PG&E admits its equipment caused the Kincade fire, but says “we don’t believe there was any crime here.”

Cal Fire traced the origin to a broken cable on a PG&E transmission tower near Geyserville that remained energized even though power had been cut off in much of Northern California because of red flag weather conditions. The investigative report was delivered to the district attorney, but it hasn’t been released to the public.

If the criminal case ends with a plea bargain, as happened in Butte County, Ravitch must insist that the report isn’t permanently buried. Prosecutors in Shasta and Tehama counties, meanwhile, are reviewing Cal Fire’s report on last year’s Zogg fire, which also was attributed to PG&E equipment.

The investigative findings should be part of the public record of PG&E’s conduct. They can help document whether PG&E keeps its commitments and inform oversight of utility companies, which are eligible to draw on a recently created $20 billion state fund to help offset the costs of future wildfires.

Some believe PG&E has failed too many times already and ought to face a corporate death penalty. Perhaps, but a new entity, public or private, would have to assume liability for fires caused by utility equipment and take on costly maintenance backlogs and system upgrades. Moreover, breakup proposals that carve out large cities such as San Jose or San Francisco could prove costly for ratepayers in rural areas, where wildfires risks are concentrated.

But PG&E, with its long record of failures, won’t get many more chances to change its ways. Soon, it will be down to its last strike.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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