Wildfires threaten not only our safety but also our climate. This summer, much of northern California has been blanketed with an ashy haze that shrouds normally visible peaks from Mount Shasta to Diablo. There is a noticeable stench in the air all the way to Oregon. And recent news reports indicate the impact of California’s particulate-laden air is being felt as far off as the east coast.
Wildfires are so damaging to the quality of our air that they jeopardize much of the progress our state has made to reduce emissions from fossil fuels. The long-term climate impacts of these fires are even worse than current conditions indicate. Charred and burnt forests continue to expel an especially toxic form of black carbon for years.
But that threat to our environment should not be confused with PG&E’s threats of bankruptcy. While PG&E’s management has repeatedly blamed climate change for recent wildfires, climate change doesn’t ignite wildfires, although it may cause them to spread more quickly. It’s even more disingenuous for PG&E to suggest that its bankruptcy would somehow impact its’ financial ability to continue “climate progress” in California, as both the company and Governor Brown have.
The truth is that PG &E’s renewable energy purchases and subsidy programs for everything from EV chargers to solar panels come directly out of customers’ pockets. Investors don’t pay for those projects. So unless PG&E is planning to divert the money customers pay for clean green electricity into payouts for damages, green energy programs won’t be impacted by PGE&’s wildfire liabilities.
These are line items on your bill, so the costs- and charges- are clear. Customers pay PG&E for the power PG&E purchases on their behalf, whether it is renewable energy or not. Investors don’t contribute. If PG&E is forced to use shareholder’s money to pay damages stemming from criminal conduct it won’t impact PG&E’s ability to purchase energy, only its ability to keep providing high profits.
Other subsidy programs, including home solar subsidies, PG&E’s experimental EV chargers and efficient appliances all come out of the public purpose charges in our monthly bills. And while PG&E may like to advertise these programs as if they were funded by PG&E’s goodwill, 100% of the money for them comes from consumers.
Many customers do pay a premium to purchase more green energy through community choice programs or even PG&E’s “green options”. While these purchases of renewable energy would not be impacted by PG&E’s bankruptcy, these customers will also see diminished results for their investment as unhealthy emissions increase.
In some cases, those emissions are a direct result of fires ignited by PG&E. The recent report from Cal Fire found that PG&E’s negligence had ignited 11 out of 16 fires investigated. While climate conditions may have contributed to how rapidly those fires spread, PG&E remains the culprit, its negligence leading not only to the destruction of homes, businesses and lives, but also to the stinky cloud that now envelopes us.
PG&E calls wildfires exacerbated by climate change the new normal. But there’s nothing new about PG&E failing to trim trees properly. The company’s criminal negligence in this regard goes back to at least 1994. What’s new is that these fires are so much worse- which makes the old normal of PG&E’s failures even more unacceptable.