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Impunity 2.0; Or, PG&E Just Wants to Let California Burn

The so-called Camp Fire caused 86 deaths, destroyed fourteen thousand homes, and burned over 150,000 acres.  It’s not yet confirmed, but it now appears highly probable that the Camp Fire was started by a failure of electrical transmission hardware operated by Pacific Gas & Electric, which observed and reported problems (including a damaged power line) in the area where the fire started, the day before it started.

But you see, this is normal.  The New York Times recently reported that PG&E was responsible for 17 of the last 21 wildfires in Northern California.  (Here’s the article.) Mostly it’s crappy maintenance.  One problem is that as trees grow, they start touching and putting pressure on utility poles, transmission lines, et cetera.  Because of the heat and drought that has increasingly plagued California, many trees are now dead or at least very dry, sometimes causing them to fall, and certainly making them far more likely to catch fire.  PG&E should be watching for this and, whenever necessary, trimming or cutting down risky trees.  PG&E should also be monitoring and repairing utility poles and lines to ensure that they’re not rotting, won’t fall down, et cetera.

But PG&E didn’t (and still doesn’t) do this enough, and as climate change made California hotter and ultra-dry, stuff happened.  For years there has been a long waiting list of neighborhoods and towns that have requested to pay PG&E to have their power lines “undergrounded,” but PG&E took its sweet time.  As for reporting a dangerous condition – well, good luck to you.  In fact, I see many dangerous conditions right in my own neighborhood – dry trees and leaves touching power lines, leaning utility poles, even random wires hanging.

Initially PG&E probably didn’t realize the seriousness of the problem, but pretty quickly they did.  They’re no dummies.  So they took immediate, massive, decisive action in response.  So you’re maybe thinking that they embarked on a crash program to inspect and fix all their infrastructure; or they immediately started undergrounding all their transmission lines; or maybe they started a massive awareness campaign about the catastrophic risks of climate change, together with an urgent effort to educate our current President, who says he doesn’t think climate change exists.

But if you think along those lines, you’re way off.  PG&E doesn’t mess around with silly stuff like that.  They’re serious people, so they went straight to the heart of the problem.  They lobbied the state government to get a law passed that reduces their liability for the fires they cause.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t take effect for a while, so it doesn’t cover the Camp Fire, and PG&E’s stock took a beating recently.  But you see, this is where you need a really proactive government to step in.  So PG&E arranged conference calls with Wall Street stock analysts, to reassure them that its liability problems were overblown.  And guess who helpfully joined them on these calls?  The chairman of the California Public Utilities Commission.

What if you did something really dangerous and irresponsible – say, keeping huge piles of paint or fireworks or whatever, in your back yard?  And what if that stuff started causing fires?

Now, let’s do a little what-if here.  What if you did something really dangerous and irresponsible – say, keeping huge piles of paint or fireworks or whatever, in your back yard?  And what if that stuff started causing fires?  And then what if, finally, that stuff in your back yard caused a really horrific fire, killing 81 people, destroying fifteen thousand homes, burning 150,000 acres.  I bet that you have a funny feeling that the government’s main response wouldn’t be to reassure your bank that you could still pay your bills.  I have a funny feeling that, actually, you think you’d be put in prison for a very long time.

Well, actually, we have a nearly perfect test case.  On December 2, 2016, the Ghost Ship, a warehouse space in Oakland, California that had been converted into artists’ live-work spaces, caught fire; 36 people died.  It turned out that nearly everyone knew the place was a firetrap – there had been police visits, fire department visits, landlord visits and (badly done) repairs, and even, yes, a PG&E inspection.  None of those organizations did anything, but nobody in those organizations was charged with a crime.  Two people were charged:  the cultish leader of the place, who deserved it, and a sweet hapless gofer, who didn’t.  They’ve both been in prison ever since.

This aerial photo shows the remains of a fire ravaged warehouse on December 05, 2016 that killed at least 36 people in Oakland, California. The death toll from a massive weekend fire at a warehouse near San Francisco shot up to 36, as authorities launched a criminal probe and pushed forth with recovery efforts. / AFP / Josh Edelson / Getty Images

But they’re just normal people.  PG&E is different.  To date, there has been not a single mention of criminal investigation or potential prosecution of PG&E executives by either the California or Federal governments for any of the fires caused by PG&E equipment – fires which have now killed over a hundred people, destroyed thousands of homes, and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Now, one more what if.  What if, after the first or second fire to cause multiple deaths, the senior executives of PG&E were put on trial for negligent homicide.  Do you think that we would still be having as many wildfires in California?

Silly me.