(CN) – Already under siege from investors, state lawmakers, regulators and countless wildfire victims, plagued mega-utility Pacific Gas and Electric could soon be called before Congress to defend its actions during prophylactic power outages in California last month.
Rep. Josh Harder, D-Modesto, on Thursday urged the House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold a hearing on the failure of PG&E and other publicly owned utilities to prepare their infrastructure for wildfires and California’s changing climate.
The freshman Democrat, whose district was one of many that completely or partially lost power during PG&E’s October blackouts, said California is “on the tip of the spear” of climate change and blasted the utility for its unreliable infrastructure.
“As climate change continues to worsen and our electrical infrastructure falls further into disrepair, we will see more and more deadly electrical events across the country,” Harder said in a letter to the committee’s chair and ranking member. “Holding a hearing on this and calling in the relevant parties to answer for inaction is a critical first step.”
With its faulty power lines blamed for starting some of the state’s largest wildfires over the last several years, the San Francisco-based utility has adopted a preventative, yet unpopular, strategy of cutting off the lights before high wind and red-flag events.
Ahead of a series of wicked October windstorms, PG&E conducted a round of blackouts that left more than a million Californians without power. Entire cities and towns in more than 30 counties went dark and despite the so-called “public safety power shutoffs,” a major wildfire still erupted in California’s Wine Country and forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes.
While the nation’s largest utility did cut power to the area before the fire started, it told state regulators that a broken jumper cable on its transmission cable likely sparked the Kincade Fire. The wildfire burned for 13 days, charring 77,000 acres and 374 structures in Sonoma County.
The latest batch of wildfires and blackouts prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to promise Californians that its government would not let PG&E off the hook.
“It took us decades to get here,” Newsom said after touring the Kincade Fire. “Make no mistake, we will get out of this mess and when we do, we will hold PG&E accountable to a degree they have not been held to before.”
The blackouts also prompted a new round of litigation, as investors accused PG&E executives of making false and misleading statements about the company’s wildfire safety efforts and readiness for fire-prevention power cuts. PG&E, which has declared bankruptcy, has seen its stock predictably plummet in 2019, with shares sitting at just $6.70 Thursday.
Since landing in Congress as part of the Democrats’ 2018 blue wave, Harder has become a vocal critic of the embattled utility.
He ripped PG&E during a House floor session last month, saying that his constituents were suffering because of the utility’s “greed, corruption and mismanagement.” Shortly after, he announced that he was preparing legislation to make it illegal for public utilities to pay executive bonuses if they’ve failed to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure.
Presidential candidate and California Sen. Kamala Harris followed with a similar bill that would prevent utilities going through bankruptcy from paying executive bonuses.
“Years of corporate negligence and misplaced priorities by energy utilities like PG&E have caused devastating fires and costly blackouts – which is exactly what happens when publicly traded utilities put corporate profits and stock prices above their customers and public safety,” Harris said Wednesday of her proposal.
PG&E spokesman James Noonan said that while it shares Harder’s “desire to keep Californians safe from the threat of wildfire,” the power shutoffs were necessary because of the windy, dry weather.
“While we recognize that the scope of these events is unsustainable in the long term, it was the correct decision for safety given the large-scale, historic weather events and ensuing equipment damage that unfolded across our service area,” Noonan said in an email.
Over the past decade, California has seen half of the state’s 10 largest wildfires and seven of its most destructive blazes. A study published in July 2019 puts the blame largely on human-caused climate change.
Harder’s letter to the energy committee caps another woeful week for the utility as powerful critics continue to pile on: State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, announced he will make a push for a public takeover of PG&E when the Legislature resumes in January, while the state’s Public Utilities Commission announced it was opening an investigation into the pre-emptive power outages. ‘
With reports estimating that California’s current wildfire season could cause more than $80 billion in damages, Harder says it’s up to Congress to press PG&E into action ahead of the next wildfire season.
“We need PG&E executives to come before the committee to explain how things got this bad and clue us in to their efforts to make things right,” Harder said in a statement. “They’re not responsible for the weather, but they are responsible for the unreliable state of their infrastructure.”