Juice: Brass Knuckles

12 May 2020

Metal fighting devices placed on a person’s knuckles “concentrate a punch’s force by directing it toward a harder and smaller contact area,” increasing the harm to the intended target, according to Wikipedia.

The Trump Administration has popularized the use of the functional equivalent of these thuggish fighting tools. They also appear back in fashion at some of our investor-owned utilities. Two recent examples reveal the benefit to the utility when the punch is aimed at state regulators and local politicians, and also with a concurrent blow to ratepayers and the climate.

During last Thursday’s California Public Utilities Commission meeting, Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen highlighted PG&E representatives’ appalling behavior fighting a proposed settlement for the 15 fires company equipment sparked in 2017 and 2018. The wildfires killed 100 people and destroyed the town of Paradise and thousands of other homes, buildings, and livelihoods. They released untold levels of particulate matter and other pollutants into the atmosphere. The pending proposal would have imposed a $2.13 billion shareholder funded penalty, compared to a $1.67 fine deal PG&E worked out earlier with the CPUC safety division and others. 

The higher proposed penalty was justified given the “unprecedented scale and scope of the harm PG&E caused,” Rechtschaffen said. He noted PG&E “relentlessly attacked” Administrative Law Judge Parks for his proposed higher penalty, and its gall for claiming it did not cause the fires at issue. The “particularly disingenuous” claim occurred while PG&E was pleading guilty elsewhere to 84 criminal charges for starting the Camp Fire that wiped out Paradise.

Rechtschaffen noted how those actions clashed with PG&E’s “strongly professed recognition of the need to dramatically transform its culture, approach to safety and professed commitment to collaboratively work with regulators.”

But instead of fining the utility for behavior usually considered unacceptable outside a Banana Republic, he and his fellow commissioners removed a $200 million fine on grounds the utility was in bankruptcy. Admittedly there are numerous powerful interests, including Wall Street and other big investors, involved in the fate of PG&E, and breathing down the commission’s neck. However, that should not stop the CPUC from making the utility pay for its thuggish behavior. 

Brass knuckle tactics also were recently used by a SoCal Gas worker against the San Luis Obispo City Council to make it back off a vote to promote the electrification of new buildings to reduce climate pollution. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that a few days after Gov. Gavin Newsom required social distancing because of Covid-19, the head of the SoCal Gas workers’ union threatened to hold a “massive protest” in San Luis Obispo on April 7, the date of the council’s vote. Union head Eric Hoffman wrote that if the meeting went forward, many hundreds of “pissed off people potentially adding to this pandemic,” would be bussed in, according to a letter the Times printed. The April 7 council meeting was cancelled after Hoffman’s March 16 threat.

The city’s community development director, Michael Codron, told the newspaper there was no way to know how serious Hoffman’s threat to hold a large crowded protest was.

The brutish tactics interfered with a vote to reduce home use of natural gas to protect the environment and decrease the health risks of gas appliances, as detailed in several recent reports.

For months, SoCal Gas has been working to undo local and state efforts to ban or curb the use of natural gas in buildings. Last year, it was caught illicitly using ratepayer money to fund Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions’ fight against building electrification. It was exposed during the Public Utilities Commission’s ongoing building decarbonization proceeding, which aims to minimize the use of natural gas for space and water heating and cooking to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The Public Advocates Office said the utility should be sanctioned for misusing ratepayer money. Nine months later, that proposed fine remains in limbo. SoCal Gas did promise to not fund the effort with its customer money, but the CPUC should ensure there are consequences for intimidation and any illicit behavior to keep if from continuing.

Regulators did take a small step in their energy efficiency proceeding by agreeing to delve into SoCal Gas’ use of ratepayer funds to attack local building electrification efforts.

Much more is needed, though, to protect ratepayers and the public, including turning brass knuckles into ploughshares. The CPUC could agree to suspend a financial penalty in exchange for a utility working proactively with local and state officials to achieve California’s goal of a decarbonized and affordable grid with verifiable results in a set time frame. That could include, for example, ensuring the replacement of utility jobs that are lost because of building electrification.

Otherwise, regulators’ failure to take meaningful action results in all of us getting punched hard as we struggle during and after the pandemic.

Elizabeth McCarthy

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