Opinion: Pacific Gas and Electric Company Needs to Pay for Its Crimes Against California
In 2018, an electrical transmission line that was nearly 100 years old malfunctioned and sparked near the small town of Paradise, California. The mean life expectancy of the transmission tower was only 65 years. Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) — the sole electricity provider for almost 16 million Californians — had failed to maintain its equipment and the surrounding vegetation.
That one malfunction caused the Camp Fire, the deadliest and costliest fire in California history. It decimated the entire town of Paradise, destroyed 18,804 buildings, and burned over 150,000 acres of land, an area comparable in size to the city of Chicago.
The Camp Fire killed 85 people, many of whom were old or ill, and unable to evacuate their homes.
PG&E pled guilty for manslaughter following the Camp Fire and agreed to a $13.5 billion settlement, promising to compensate wildfire victims, rebuild the ravaged ecosystems, and improve safety measures. It also attempted to revamp its public image, bringing on new management and introducing company policies that vowed to integrate sustainability and climate science into its business model.
The state of California partnered with PG&E to create the Fire Victim Trust, a fund meant to provide financial support to Camp Fire victims. But according to local news sources*, about half of the Camp Fire victims had not received any compensation as of June 2022.
The Fire Victim Trust spent almost 90% of its funds on overhead the first year, leaving the citizens of Paradise desperate. Additionally, the Trust is partly financed by PG&E stock which continues to lose value, leaving victims concerned that the money will run out.
“We haven’t heard anything or have been offered anything and it’s pretty devastating for everybody,” said Jef Fuller to Action News Now. He lost his home in the Camp Fire.
Then, in 2021, despite promises to do better, PG&E overlooked a diseased tree that later fell onto an electrical distribution line. Poor equipment and vegetation maintenance this time led to the Dixie Fire, the largest single wildfire ever recorded in California. It burned almost 1 million acres, roughly 1% of the entire state.
This time, PG&E avoided manslaughter charges, agreeing to a $55 million settlement. But Californians were skeptical, unsure if they would receive adequate compensation and angry that PG&E wasn’t held criminally accountable.
This summer, PG&E flagged one of their transmission poles as potentially faulty. Just days later, before a crew was brought in to address the problem, another fire broke out on September 6. The 2022 Mosquito Fire is a 76,000-acre wildfire currently burning only 48 miles from my family home.
The US Forest Service has seized the transmission pole as evidence, and in the past three weeks, two separate lawsuits have been filed against PG&E.
But it’s not just PG&E’s equipment that leaves California vulnerable to fires. Electric power generation is responsible for 28% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Power companies are contributing significantly to global temperature increase, unstable climate patterns, and ecosystem collapse.
Many environmental scientists, including myself, feel strongly that industries like electricity should be held financially accountable for their part in the climate crisis. By assigning monetary value to resources like clean air and water, or carbon storage by plants, it’s easier to force corporations to make amends.
PG&E is a special case. For more than 100 years, the company has released carbon into the atmosphere. It aggravates a climate crisis that leaves California hot, dry, and vulnerable to environmental disaster; then it causes the disaster.
Meanwhile, Northern California residents are left without options for electricity providers. We are forced to pay money to a company that continuously puts our environment, communities, and lives at risk.
$13.5 billion is not enough. An unreliable Fire Victim Trust is not enough. Vague promises of a “nature-positive energy system” are not enough.
PG&E should transition away from fossil fuels immediately and completely in order to prevent further damage to the climate. It should fund research to try and prevent future drought conditions, subsidize restoration and reforestation of burned landscapes, and pay for the housing and healthcare of wildfire victims.
Most importantly, PG&E shouldn’t be allowed to hold an unethical monopoly on Northern California’s energy.
With the new Inflation Reduction Act, these are reasonable goals. The government has pledged financial support to rural communities, invested in renewable energy, and promised to lower consumer energy costs.
With the federal government’s support and money on our side, California residents and policymakers have the capacity to hold PG&E responsible for its actions while maintaining our energy security. We can look forward to a zero-emission future with fewer wildfire disasters and sufficient reparations for the many victims of climate change.
But until then, the state of California is suffering and urgently needs help. PG&E must take full responsibility for its egregious misconduct. It needs to stand behind its promises of sustainability and financial compensation. It needs to invest in renewable energy, fund reforestation efforts, adopt effective fire management strategies, and properly maintain its equipment. PG&E needs to stop putting Californians in danger.
Emma Lauterbach is a graduate student in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology at Columbia University.
*Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that NPR was the source of this statistic. The error was fixed on November 2, 2022.