Campaign Fights PG&E Bailout: CPUC Sides with Wall Street, Puts Communities at Risk

(06/2020) On May 28, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) unanimously approved a deal between Governor Newsom and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for the company to exit bankruptcy. The deal, which puts ratepayers, wildfire survivors, and our communities at grave risk, was strongly opposed by the Local Clean Energy Alliance and the other organizations leading the Reclaim Our Power Utility Justice Campaign. 

"We need a much better deal,” said Mari Rose Taruc, Coordinator of the Campaign, “one that prioritizes the health and well-being of frontline communities, of frontline workers, of our disabled and medically vulnerable community members. We need a deal that will protect us during the upcoming wildfire season—from getting burned out or having our power shut off."

In the months leading up to the CPUC’s vote, the Reclaim Our Power Campaign mobilized hundreds of people and scores of organizations to call on Commissioners to reject the Wall Street-engineered plan to rescue PG&E, while demanding a restructured utility that could address the needs of wildfire survivors, electricity ratepayers, and our communities.
In January 2019, in the wake of historic California wildfires like the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to avoid paying over $30 billion in damage claims brought against the company for causing a rash of wildfires in 2017 and 2018. CPUC approval of a PG&E Plan of Reorganization was needed for the utility to exit federal bankruptcy court. 
In March, the Governor, who had been critical of PG&E’s bankruptcy exit plan, suddenly flipped and agreed to a deal with PG&E that would leave all of us holding the bag on a dangerous PG&E bailout. The Reclaim Our Power Campaign rapidly moved into action, pointing out how the PG&E exit plan bilks wildfire survivors, bails out PG&E shareholders at ratepayer expense, increases the risk of wildfires and utility power shutoffs, fails to provide credible oversight of the company, and fails to address community needs regarding climate change and the pandemic. (For details, see PG&E’s Bankruptcy Exit Plan and What It Means for You.)
Fighting the PG&E bailout
Over the months of April and May the Campaign went into high gear to bring public attention to this dangerous exit plan, put pressure on the CPUC to reject it, and call for changes to the plan that would address community needs, especially those communities most impacted by wildfires, utility shutoffs, rising utility bills, and the health and economic effects of the current pandemic.
A high point of this effort was a May 20 street protest and press conference held by the Campaign at CPUC headquarters in San Francisco. Held amidst the pandemic against a backdrop of banners and painted outlines of the 85 people killed in the Paradise wildfire, the Facebook Live press conference featured wildfire survivors, community organizations and youth climate activists from across the Bay Area. The press conference was seen by over 1300 viewers and major press, and it was interrupted by state police called in to break up the event, presumably for blocking the entrance to a pandemic-vacant CPUC headquarters. 
Other actions organized by the Campaign included (details available here):
  • Two petitions garnering more than a thousand signatures
  • Phone-in public comment (meetings were all online due to pandemic restrictions) at four consecutive CPUC meetings on April 16, May 7, May 21, and May 28 at which hundreds of activists and youth representing scores of organizations, supported Reclaim Our Power Campaign demands.
  • Submission of two filings to the CPUC’s PG&E bankruptcy proceeding that outlined the Campaign’s demands regarding the Newsom/PG&E exit plan—calling for full compensation to wildfire survivors, no added charges to ratepayer bills to pay off PG&E debt, true safety from utility-caused wildfires and power shutoffs, rigorous independent oversight of the utility, a sustainable, decentralized energy model, and acknowledgement of energy as a human right.
  • Two meetings with Governor Newsom’s top energy staff to press our case for meaningful restructuring of both PG&E and the energy system more broadly.
Putting Utility Justice on the State Agenda
The Reclaim Our Power Campaign’s efforts to fight a dangerous Wall-Street PG&E bankruptcy exit plan were not yet strong enough to pressure the CPUC to reject the deeply flawed plan. However, the Campaign did succeed in bringing public attention to the inadequacies and dangers of the plan and to the kind of transformed utility needed to address the dangers posed to our communities by utility-caused wildfires, power shutoffs, and rising utility bills.
This kind of transformed utility is made more urgent by the current pandemic, when energy reliability and security is even more essential to keeping our homes and medical facilities operational during this public health and economic crisis. It is more evident than ever that we need a very different kind of utility than a bailed-out PG&E. 
The PG&E bankruptcy case is huge in both its financial implications as well as the opportunity it provides to fundamentally change one of the biggest and most negligent private utilities in our country. At stake is whether PG&E is bailed out at ratepayer expense to wreak more wildfire and utility shutoff havoc, or whether it gets restructured to advance the safe, reliable, renewable, and equitable energy system we need to address a changing climate and a critical pandemic.

Comment of Tré Vasquez to CPUC Commissioners, May 28, 2020
I’ve lived through two wildfires in Sonoma County. During both fires, my community worked tirelessly—sacrificing sleep, meals, and the comfort of our own homes to care for those who had been displaced and traumatized by these fires caused by the recklessness of PG&E. We can’t overlook the fact that all of this could have been prevented, and we should not have to live our lives doing damage control due to corporate greed. 
Here in Sonoma County our relatives who work in the fields were back out working in evacuated areas while wildfires were still burning. What I’m saying to you is that there are those of us whose lives are considered an afterthought. If this plan goes through to bail out PG&E, what that says to us is that our lives are worth sacrificing to conduct business as usual. 
This is your opportunity to hold investor-owned utilities accountable. We need a transformational energy system based on a clean, decentralized energy model. We can build real solutions that value people and the earth before profit, and today you have the opportunity to make an ethical and humane choice. Please do so before it’s too late.