Monday, April 13, 2020




          All sorts of demands have been made upon Pacific Gas & Electricity Co. as its bankruptcy proceeding staggers toward a June 30 deadline for emerging as some sort of new entity, if that entity is to share in a consumer-paid state fund that will cover many utility liabilities in future company-caused wildfires.

          But one demand has been conspicuously lacking while fire victims demand adequate restitution, Wall Street banks maneuver for financial security and some kind of control over the company, while insurance companies seek refunds for their payouts to homeowners and businesses.

          Until just a few weeks ago, no one in any way involved with the proceedings had even mentioned personal responsibility.

          No one, in fact, has ever taken personal responsibility for any of the misdeeds of either PG&E or any other California utility that have lately resulted in well over 100 deaths.

          In the modern era, this lack of accountability began with the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion for which PG&E was later convicted of negligence in federal court, the reason why the company is still on criminal probation today, even as it’s also in bankruptcy court.

          That blast killed eight persons directly and aftereffects may have caused other deaths. Then, in 2018, PG&E’s poor maintenance helped spark the Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 85 persons while destroying the city of Paradise and much of its surrounding area. The company has pleaded guilty of manslaughter for this.

          Other deaths in other utility-caused fires have occurred sporadically before and since, from the 2007 Witch Fire in San Diego County to the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which burned from the outskirts of Simi Valley in Ventura County to the Malibu coastline.

          In no case has any private utility – not PG&E, not San Diego Gas & Electric Co., not Southern California Edison Co. – identified a single person responsible for decisions leading to the faulty maintenance that at least partially triggered those blazes.

          This lack of personal responsibility has to end, and the most convenient vehicle for ending it right away should be PG&E’s bankruptcy proceeding.

          Sure, Gov. Gavin Newsom has demanded the ouster of PG&E’s entire board of directors and its top corporate officers, and that might happen. But getting dumped from a lucrative directorship or a high-paid executive slot is not like doing jail time.

          Now comes a proposal from Mike Aguirre, a consumer attorney and a former elected city attorney of San Diego whose efforts slashed more than $1 billion from consumer payments for the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, shut down in 2012 because of an Edison blunder.

          Aguirre suggests that as a side agreement in any PG&E emergence from bankruptcy, corporate leaders be held personally responsible for corporate claims of good maintenance and brush clearance around power lines.

          He suggests that legislators alter the state’s utility code so the chief executive of any electrical company, public or private, must certify regularly that fire mitigation plans are presented accurately to the public and that those plans have been fully carried out, in the precise manner they were approved by the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

          Failure to do this would be a misdemeanor, regardless of whether or not an out-of-control wildfire ensued. Violations would be punishable by fines up to $10,000 to be paid by the individual CEO, not his or her corporation, by a one-year term in the county jail, or both.

          This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the first time anyone has suggested personal responsibility within monolithic utilities, where it’s often hard to track the makers of decisions that sometimes led to deaths. The fatalities from San Bruno and the spate of wildfires of the last few years plainly fit the definition of manslaughter, as PG&E’s plea shows, but no person has been prosecuted for that, because no individual has been held to answer for whatever caused the disasters.

          Adopt the Aguirre formula and faces could finally be matched with corporate decisions that cost lives and property.

          The betting here is that if and when this happens, utilities will suddenly start behaving far more responsibly than they have in the century-long era of anonymous decision-making.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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