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PG&E

Pacific Gas & Electric vehicles are parked at the PG&E Oakland Service Center in Oakland.

If you want to see a phony investigation, check out virtually every one of the last decade involving the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC). It will be no surprise if a new investigation due for a formal kickoff Aug. 13 in San Francisco turns out the same.

This so-called “investigation” will determine whether Pacific Gas & Electric Co. should be sanctioned for apparently violating several laws and PUC orders while admittedly helping start many of the huge wildfires that afflicted California in 2017 and 2018.

Unlike past investigations, this one most likely won’t have to use subterfuges or very mild penalties to let PG&E off the hook. One of those past investigations was into the PUC’s own apparent criminal collusion with the Southern California Edison Co. in forcing customers to pay most costs of dismantling the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

That one, which saw a few search warrants served and spurred a fearful PUC to use $10 million in public funds hiring criminal defense lawyers for its individual commissioners, disappeared quietly just after then-Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed former state Attorney General (now presidential candidate) Kamala Harris for the U.S. Senate in 2016.

Other PUC “investigations” produced token fines for PG&E and Edison, later recouped via rate increases imposed on customers, whom bureaucrats like to call “ratepayers.”

The new proceeding won’t need subterfuge because of the rushed-through law creating California’s new wildfire bailout fund to protect privately owned utilities. That law changes the rules.

Formerly, it was up to the utilities to prove they acted “prudently,” whatever that means. To defend themselves now, companies need only show their acts were consistent with what a “reasonable” utility would do. The burden of proof has shifted 180 degrees.

To oppose a finding that utilities were reasonable, consumers must now analyze the actions of virtually every utility in America. It’s a much tougher and more expensive standard for consumer advocates, who lack the funds and large-scale legal manpower utilities deploy in all their proceedings.

“It’s a crazy standard,” says Mike Aguirre, the former San Diego city attorney now attempting to get the wildfire fund law (better known as AB 1054) thrown out by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who presides over PG&E’s bankruptcy case. “We will be reminding the judge that we are dealing with a convicted felon that has violated probation.”

Aguirre led the legal effort that forced a huge reduction in the San Onofre settlement years after its questionable approval.

When he calls PG&E a convicted felon, it’s because a federal court criminally convicted PG&E for its actions in the fatal 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion, and Alsup this year ruled it violated probation before the more recent spate of fires.

All this is background for the PUC “investigation,” needed under AB 1054 if PG&E is to tap the taxpayer-financed wildfire fund in order to help pay tens of billions of dollars in claims it anticipates from fires it helped cause.

Part of the very order setting up the PUC proceeding notes that the commission’s own Safety and Enforcement Division found PG&E “failed to follow industry best practices” and its “vegetation management practices and procedures were deficient and equipment operations were in severe condition.”

Given that finding, it would be hard for the five commissioners to find PG&E acted prudently, as those words virtually define the opposite. But prudency no longer matters, under the law pushed urgently by Gov. Gavin Newsom and passed by huge majorities of legislators, the vast bulk of whom took campaign donations from PG&E in the last election. Newsom himself accepted more than $200,000 and has called queries about it “weird.”

Newsom claims the culture of the PUC has changed, but the law he hustled through appears designed to preserve the old culture favoring utilities over their customers. That law also allows the PUC to authorize unlimited rate increases to pay back bonds the state can issue to cover utility wildfire liabilities, if companies are found to have acted reasonably.

All of which makes the new “investigation” worth watching, if only because it is crucial to PG&E’s interests and could be very costly to its blameless customers and those of other utilities with big wildfire liabilities.

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Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”

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