Invest San Bruno Fine in Safety

Proposed PG&E Fine Would Drain Money from Safety Upgrades, Put Californians at Risk

The evening of September 9, 2010, fear and confusion reigned as Californians tried to make sense of the news out of San Bruno. The explosion had laid bare more than busted pipe -- decades of deferred maintenance (and bad decisions) suddenly came into sharp focus. After the dust had settled and the facts were on the table, one thing seemed clear: everyone, from citizens to politicians to the media and reform groups agreed that PG&E had to be held responsible, and that the gas system had to be made safe so that nothing like this could ever happen again.

But just four years later, the state's top energy regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), might be ignoring the most important part of that lesson. On Tuesday, two CPUC administrative law judges released their proposed remedy -- a $1.4 billion fine that would gravely impact PG&E's ability to make safety improvements to its gas lines, and directs the bulk of the money to California's General Fund instead of requiring that the funds be used to complete safety upgrades of the gas system.

If Tuesday's proposal is carried out, crucial upgrades will not be made. What had seemed inevitable in the wake of the explosion -- that the crisis of our aging infrastructure would be taken seriously and finally addressed -- is now in question.

After the disaster, PG&E spent $2.7 billion of shareholder money (not ratepayer money) to test and upgrade thousands of miles of pipe, create a command center to better monitor and respond to emergencies, and deploy new sensors that are 1,000 times better at detecting gas leaks. Add the $1.4 billion proposed by the judges to that sum, and the total comes to $4.1 billion.

Our union represents the men and women who work directly on the gas lines, and they know from first hand experience that the system is much safer than it was four years ago -- but that significant testing and repair work is still needed. That's why the CPUC would shortchange their safety -- and the safety of all Californians -- if they choose to enact this fine as it has been proposed.

PG&E shareholders should "make it right" for California. But that means investing the funds from the fine in fixing the system. Further safety improvements will most likely be paid for by customers -- meaning the CPUC would miss its chance to use penalty process to save customers money and make the system safe.

The CPUC should either reduce the fine or direct all of it towards making the system safer, as both the City of San Bruno and the utility watchdog TURN (The Utility Reform Network) have suggested. Our members, the people of San Bruno and all Californians deserve it.