PG&E must be prevented from causing another tragedy

The San Bruno disaster showed that regulators must stop giving a free pass to big companies like PG&E. (Getty Images file photo)The San Bruno disaster showed that regulators must stop giving a free pass to big companies like PG&E. (Getty Images file photo)

The San Bruno disaster showed that regulators must stop giving a free pass to big companies like PG&E. (Getty Images file photo)The San Bruno disaster showed that regulators must stop giving a free pass to big companies like PG&E. (Getty Images file photo)

It’s fairly remarkable that after more than 100 years as a utility provider, PG&E could be so woefully disconnected.

And it leaves little doubt that hubris is a natural byproduct of business monopolies.

As The San Francisco Examiner’s series on the anniversary of the San Bruno natural gas pipeline blast that resulted in the deaths of eight people and leveled an entire neighborhood proves, PG&E’s primary output these days is calculated exploitation. How a utility company can be so negligent and arrogant at the same time is almost as telling as all the missteps that led up to the disaster itself.

A recent report by federal investigators left no doubt that PG&E was responsible for the explosion that ripped through San Bruno last Sept. 9, an incident caused by a flaw in the pipeline weld that had not been properly inspected for more than 50 years. The danger was further compounded by the company’s “poor record keeping, inadequate inspection programs and an integrity management program without integrity,” according to National Transportation Safety Board officials.

Integrity has long been in short supply at the power company, which has a long history of passing along dubious charges to unsuspecting customers. So it comes as little surprise that after being responsible for multiple deaths and widespread destruction, PG&E wants to bill ratepayers for the company’s plan to rebuild its pipeline network — something that should have been done decades ago.

This is no small jolt. PG&E wants to charge us for almost the full amount of the estimated $2.2 billion it will cost to install its new Pipeline Safety Installment Plan that it filed with the California Public Utilities Commission last month. Customers would pay for new pipes along the company’s 783 miles of transmission network as part of PG&E’s “rate base.’’ It would also charge consumers for the installation of a new electronic records management system.

Imagine — a power-producing company that would use electronics to manage its records, here in 2011. Yet somehow, PG&E has never had a problem tracking its bills.

You might ask why ratepayers should be required to pay for something that the company should have done as part of its ongoing operations. It appears the answer is that PG&E’s natural inclination is to do everything it can to turn off customers.

It’s encouraging that PG&E seems to be finally addressing safety issues along its vast pipeline networks. But it shouldn’t have taken the disaster in San Bruno to determine that the industry has inadequate standards in place to deal with defective lines like the one that erupted in a deadly fireball on the Peninsula.

This is where public outrage and will should merge — directly at the CPUC. The CPUC is charged with regulating the utilities industry and must approve all proposed rate hikes. By extension, the commission is responsible for failing to help PG&E avert the disaster by pushing for stronger oversight of the pipeline system and its inspection programs.

In essence, the watchdog agency wasn’t watching. And in the face of mounting evidence, it chose to turn a blind eye.

If the CPUC wants to do the right thing, it will take PG&E’s request for the rate hike and shove it among the many boxes the company used to keep its documents. It should make PG&E pay out of its own deep pockets for the upgrades for the simple reason that companies must maintain their own infrastructure as a necessity. In the utility company’s case, it’s also the price of benign neglect.

PG&E will of course resist. That is part of its culture.

Only the public utilities commission can change that. And in the case of PG&E, money is the only thing that matters.

Still, other remedies are needed. The NTSB has urged Gov. Jerry Brown to allow the utility safety staff to impose fines on companies that fail to heed safety measures. Most industries already have such powers in place. You can imagine what publicly traded companies might do if the Securities and Exchange Commission wasn’t there to impose hefty fines.

But gone is the time when oversight agencies can give a wink and a pass to those companies they regulate.

Ask the residents of San Bruno just who should have the power.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at

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