As has been reported in the news, PG&E is readying itself to file for bankruptcy — for the second time in less than twenty years. But unlike 2001, this bankruptcy isn’t being driven by an energy crisis or rogue traders — this is a climate-driven crisis. And it is the canary in the coal mine as our old institutions knock up against a changing climate and the challenges that come with it.
In 2001, I was an attorney for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, the union that represents more than 12,000 frontline workers at PG&E. Today I am the union’s Business Manager. Over the past twenty years I have watched the company and our state government respond to our changing climate — first by trying to reduce emissions and slow the crisis, and now, by scrambling to handle its manifestations as they come.
To recap: the worst drought in 1,200 years bore down on California in the early part of this decade. The period between late 2011 and 2014 was the driest in California history since record-keeping began. The U.S. Forest Service announced that 129 million trees in California had died, due to the drought and an infestation of bark beetles, which preyed on trees weakened by environmental conditions. In December of 2017, Randy Moore, the Regional Forester of the U.S.
Forest Service, said “The number of dead and dying trees has continued to rise, along with the risks to communities and firefighters if a wildfire breaks out in these areas.” And he was right.
Less than one year later, the Camp Fire ignited amid unusually strong winds. The devastation cannot be overstated – it was unlike any fire our state has ever seen. Thousands of workers from our union stayed in temporary base camps to help rebuild, working through weeks of horrible air quality and rain to get the lights back on. Many of them had lost homes themselves.
As someone who has worked closely with PG&E, but has also fought against them many times during contract battles, I can tell you that this bankruptcy is a step backwards for California. PG&E is leading the nation on reducing emissions and building the cleanest energy portfolio of any major utility — but a bankruptcy would stop all of this progress in its tracks, leading to higher emissions and more climate danger ahead.
The Camp Fire and the fires before it have highlighted climate change’s impact on our utilities. But the fact is that nearly all of our infrastructure — our dams, our water management systems,
and our transit systems — are in danger.
For example: as the temperature gets warmer, more winter precipitation is projected to fall as rain instead of snow. If emissions continue unabated, spring Sierra snowpack levels are projected to decrease by 39 to 72%. This will have crippling consequences for all of southern California, which depends on vast quantities of snow in the northern Sierra for its water supply.
And in the next 100 years, sea levels along our coast are projected to rise by eight feet. In the Bay Area alone, that means hundreds of acres of currently inhabited land would be flooded — as would crucial public infrastructure projects like water treatment plants, transportation hubs and more.
For the good of our state, it’s time to focus on how we can safely adapt our systems to what Jerry Brown described as “the new abnormal.” If we don’t, every Californian will be paying the price for policies that don’t match our priorities.
Our new Governor, Gavin Newsom, recognizes that we are facing a big problem with no easy solutions. And he is clearly ready to act – he has made climate change a signature issue and is making huge strides in fire prevention. But he cannot do it alone. He needs state legislators to begin the uncomfortable work of making changes to our infrastructure, our policies, and yes, our liability laws — so that we can build a state that meets the current challenges of climate change while reducing its impact in the future.
Tom Dalzell is Business Manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents over 12,000 workers at PG&E.