From midnight Oct. 9 to 2 p.m. Oct. 12, more than a million people in Northern and Central California were without electric power. This was not from a fire, explosion or natural disaster, but a planned action by the corporate heads of Pacific Gas & Electric — an action that many people believe was driven by corporate greed rather than people’s safety.
PG&E has been on the hot seat for its mismanagement, financial shortcuts and inability to avoid large disasters in its system from the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, which killed 8 people and injured 58 and was caused by failure to inspect and maintain safe pipelines, to the 2018 Camp Fire tragedy in Paradise which killed at least 88 people, destroyed homes, businesses and most structures in the town and left thousands homeless. (https://tinyurl.com/y6zaoy28)
PG&E faces massive lawsuits and $30 billion in liabilities from its role in the Camp Fire tragedy and filed for bankruptcy in January.
Let’s also not forget the 2017 series of fires in and around Santa Rosa, which destroyed over 5,600 structures and killed at least 22 people. In 2015, in Amador County, the Butte Fire destroyed 365 homes and killed two people — a Sacramento judge found PG&E at fault and fined the company $8 million. Additionally, California Fire and Rescue asked for $90 million, and Calaveras County said they would ask for hundreds of millions in compensation.
Fast forward to this year. Newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom went on record favoring a financial bailout of the bankrupt company (which might be up to $5.5 billion). Newsom apparently received a hefty donation to his election campaign from PG&E. (tinyurl.com/y4d75tjc) This year, the private utility proposed big bonuses for their board and corporate heads. California residents were left extremely angry and wondering if they will ever be compensated for their losses.
PG&E’s board is similar to the current federal Environmental Protection Agency — filled with fossil fuel executives, capitalists and corporate lobbyists. By no means does it resemble a company that will act in the interests of the millions of people who depend upon its services.
Environmental activists and organizations have been demanding for years that PG&E carry out the inspections needed to prevent pipeline explosions and equipment malfunctions that have sparked fires. PG&E has refused to trim the trees near power lines. Many groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America, have pointed out that if PG&E “had invested in infrastructure upgrades to make the power system resistant to high winds,” they could have avoided the wildfires. (Majority, Oct. 10,)
‘Time for public takeover of PG&E’
Despite strong critical reaction to the outage, PG&E maintains it was necessary to shut down power during peak heat and wind conditions to avoid wildfires. Several mayors and other elected officials have questioned the necessity and the size of the PG&E power shutdown; the mayor of Nevada City organized a “light parade” to protest the shut-off. State Sen. Jerry Hill from San Mateo called the shutdowns “excessive” and said, “PG&E clearly hasn’t made its system safe. These shutdowns are supposed to be surgical. But shutting down power to 800,000 people in 31 counties is by no means surgical.” (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 9)
Many people feel that PG&E is punishing the people of California for their lawsuits and anger, and covering itself for future lawsuits resulting from this massive outage. People are concerned that, rather than fix the problem, PG&E will fall back on regular massive power outages that not only disrupt people’s lives but also endanger many people, including elderly and disabled people who depend upon electrical power for their daily survival.
When 40,000 people took to the streets of San Francisco during the Sept. 20 climate strike, one of the planned stops was in front of the PG&E headquarters. In front of this large and well-fortified building, activists performed a skit documenting this utility company’s crimes against the people of California, exposing its corporate greed and indicting PG&E for its actions.
Close to 50 people held a vigil Oct. 11 outside PG&E’s office in Oakland. Most people agreed that PG&E should be held responsible for the wildfires and the danger of future wildfires caused by its refusal to spend the money to make its system safer.
Momentum is growing for a “public takeover” of PG&E. A Jan. 17 op-ed in Truthout by Johanna Bozuwa made a strong case for the state of California taking over PG&E and “creating a more democratic energy system.”
Nearly 40 years ago, at the height of the oil industries’ imposed gasoline shortages and price hikes, Workers World Party launched a national campaign to demand “oil belongs to the people” and called for a worker takeover of the oil industry.
It is time to raise a similar demand within the progressive and climate crisis movements for real workers’ and community control of the energy industry. This can only be fully accomplished if we join together to overturn this murderous, for-profit system and build a socialist system that will first and foremost focus on people’s needs.
This is a slightly edited version of a talk given during the “What Road to…