Recently, climate change has become a hot-button issue in the United States political scene. Arguments from both sides have polarized the scientific field, and somehow something that was commonly agreed upon not even a decade ago is now seen as controversial. But now, 13 years after Al Gore released his documentary that brought the climate disaster into the public’s eye, the effects of climate change are beginning to make their mark on the West Coast.
Over the last few weeks, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), California’s biggest energy provider, has begun scheduled blackouts in an attempt to mitigate fire risks that the company has posed in the past. PG&E has been responsible for multiple devastating fires in the past, including the Camp Fire of 2018, which ultimately caused the deaths of 85 people. PG&E is a radically irresponsible and dangerous company that should be broken up to reduce the environmental, economic, and physical risks that they pose to their customers and their communities.
In October of this year, PG&E began implementing the first of their mass blackouts, marketed as “Public Safety Shutoff Events.” This first blackout affected over 800,000 homes and as many as two million people. Californians were left without any power with very little warning. The PG&E website and call centers were overloaded with questions from customers who didn’t know about the scheduled blackout, and information was scarce and moved slowly. The blackout closed businesses and schools, as well as threatened the lives of customers who were living with health conditions.
This isn’t the first time PG&E has put lives at risk, though. The company has a history of reckless decisions and poor planning, including continued use of a century-old transmission tower that had outlived its useful life by 25 years and started the Camps Fire which killed 86 people and a gas line explosion that killed eight people. PG&E is tens of billions of dollars in debt, recently declared bankruptcy, and has a history of felony charges within its higher ranking board members. The so-called “Public Safety Shutoff Events” are the most recent in a series of corporate missteps, though it isn’t at all the first time PG&E has risked lives to save money.
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson appeared at an emergency meeting of the state of California Public Utilities Commission recently. Commission members stated their shock at the severe lack of modern technology and services available to the state’s largest power company as well as the sheer ignorance that was involved in the execution of the outage. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who requested the commission hearing, called for rebates for private households and businesses, as well as suggested breaking up the utility and turning it over to consumers. The Utility Reform Network called for California judges to ban PG&E from lobbying and making political contributions. Mark Toney, executive director for the Utility Reform Network, stated that he believes “It has never been clearer that the managers of PG&E are not to be trusted.”
The utility company has issued statements explaining that they will be increasing inspections and updating power lines, but Johnson told the Public Utilities Commission that California might see outages like this for the next decade. Just a few days ago, PG&E issued a warning to 17 counties to be prepared for outages. These rolling blackouts are unacceptable, especially in one of the U.S.’s biggest and most financially well-off states. For a public utility company as large as PG&E to knowingly avoid proper safety practices, maintenance inspections, and place lives in danger just so their criminal higher-ups can make a quick buck is beyond ignorant and arrogant. Companies like these should be broken up and power should be handed over to the consumer. Stopping wildfires caused by gross negligence that deny a basic service to millions of people for hours or days isn’t the way to fix a problem. PG&E needs to be held accountable for their actions. And for God’s sake, take a look at those power lines.