Unfortunately, the Rosy Picture Painted by PG&E’s Ads Just Isn’t True

 

All of us in northern California have been subjected to a barrage of advertising from PG&E designed to convince us that PG&E is putting safety first. Diverse workers wax eloquent about their commitment to safety and the wonderful company they work for. But recent CPUC citations of PG&E for violations of safety rules tell a very different story, one not nearly as attractive as the company’s slick ads.

CPUC President Picker was critical of PG&E’s post-San Bruno track record in his comments on the Commission’s historic vote requiring PG&E to pay $1.6 billion in penalties for the explosion. Picker’s remarks were accompanied by a bar chart showing that PG&E has violated Commission safety rules far more often than other gas utilities- even in the wake of the fatal and avoidable blow-up in San Bruno.

“If, indeed, PG&E is failing to establish a safety culture, and we continue to see more accidents and violations of safety rules, what are our tools?” Picker asked, noting that the financial penalties PG&E has paid in the past don’t seem to have had much of an impact on shareholders, even though the penalties come out of their profits. “Do PG&E board directors or executive officers feel CPUC sanctions directly,” he asked. “Is there anyone with authority within the company who is accountable for our fines and penalties?”

Picker noted gas system incidents in Kern County, Carmel, Morgan Hill, Castro Valley, Cupertino and Milpitas — all of which occurred after the September 2010 explosion — as examples of PG&E’s ongoing safety failures.

Picker suggested that California might be able to impose requirements similar to the federal Sarbanes-Oxley model on PG&E, requiring executives and management to stand behind reports and be personally accountable for false or misleading reports they have signed off on. He also suggested that PG&E might be too big to regulate, and that breaking up the company’s gas and electric operations could result in the safer running of both.

Picker’s comments on PG&E’s unwieldy size and unsafe operations sparked numerous editorials supporting the idea of breaking up the company- and holding it to higher standards. But just days later, an audit of the CPUC’s own safety division concluded the division itself was disorganized and ineffectual, accusing it of unacceptable backlogs and shoddy inspections, and faulting CPUC management for many of those problems.

John McGlothlin, a survivor of the PG&E explosion, told the Associated Press that PG&E’s ads haven’t impressed him. “It looks like at some point they decided to spend the money on what I’ll call propaganda, rather than action,” he said.