California Lawmaker Pushing To Take PG&E Public Knows It Won't Be An Easy Fight

State Sen. Scott Wiener wants to make the electric utility publicly owned after its equipment caused deadly wildfires and created massive blackouts.

SAN FRANCISCO — California state Sen. Scott Wiener (D) is pushing legislation to turn Northern California’s Pacific Gas & Electric company into a publicly owned utility — but acknowledged such a bill will be hard to pass. 

At a breakfast in San Francisco hosted by Axios and sponsored by JPMorgan Chase on Wednesday, Wiener argued for the government’s takeover of the major energy company. He introduced a bill last week to make PG&E a public utility, noting in a news release that it had imposed massive blackouts in the region last year in an effort to prevent blazes and its malfunctioning equipment had caused deadly wildfires.

“When people push back and say, ‘Woah, can we do this?’ Well, PG&E is an investor-owned utility — how’s that going for people?” Wiener said Wednesday. 

The progressive state senator described PG&E as a “failed company” that was focused on its “bottom line and shareholder returns” to the detriment of “basic infrastructure maintenance.”  

“It’s not going to get better,” Wiener said, noting that there were several publicly owned power providers in the state, including in Los Angeles. “We should focus on affordability and take the profit motive out. It’s time for radical change.” 

After the event, Wiener told HuffPost that his bill will likely be a tough sell to the broader public and other legislators.

“This bill is a very, very hard bill,” Wiener said. “And I cannot say with any degree of confidence that it’s going to move forward or pass.” 

He added that the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in this effort will be key, since the governor’s “opinion matters a lot.” While Newsom has yet to say whether he’d support Wiener’s legislation, the governor has previously threatened a public takeover if the company doesn’t make changes. (Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.)

PG&E’s malfunctioning equipment has been linked to several fires in California in recent years, including the state’s deadliest-ever blaze, the Camp fire, which killed 85 people and turned nearly the entire town of Paradise to ash in 2018. The company then spurred outrage late last year after it cut power to more than 2 million people in Northern California in an attempt to prevent further fires. The company’s energy unit declared bankruptcy in January 2019 amid lawsuits from wildfire victims.

Newsom has repeatedly slammed PG&E for its history of prioritizing profits over public safety, saying the power cuts were an attempt to solve a problem of its own making.

PG&E told HuffPost Wednesday that proposals for public ownership of the company “are not new concepts” and that the company “[does not] agree that the outcomes of this type of framework will benefit customers, taxpayers, local communities, the state or our economy.”

Other California lawmakers and elected officials have expressed support of public ownership of electric utilities in the past year. Progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), as well as nearly two dozen mayors across Northern California, have called for a public takeover of PG&E. 

But California voters don’t seem so sure. In a December poll of likely voters by the University of California, Berkeley for the Los Angeles Times, 35% of voters said PG&E should remain investor owned, 37% were for a government-run model and 28% had no opinion.

Wiener said that the polling shows that “a lot of people are not sure what to do about PG&E.” 

“There’s an openness to public ownership,” Wiener said, noting it’s a “confusing issue.” “A lot of people are hesitant, because they just don’t know the right approach — but they do know the current approach is not working.”