At a standing room only Environmental Town Hall meeting at the Felton Community Hall last Saturday, State Assemblymember Mark Stone spoke about the state legislature’s environmental agenda, and then focused at length on the closer -to-home issue of PG&E’s tree cutting around power lines in the San Lorenzo Valley.
Acknowledging that California is internationally recognized for “exporting innovation as well as leadership” on climate change policy, especially as the federal government steps away from limiting carbon emissions, Stone explained that Governor Jerry Brown wanted the full support of the legislature to extend the state’s carbon emission “cap and trade program” until 2030, which he by and large received.
Stone explained that as something of a quid pro quo the legislature leveraged the governor’s priority on climate change for his support of funding housing and other issues, shown by the governor’s sign off on Proposition 1, the $4 billion housing bond approved by voters on Nov. 6.
Stone admitted other than Governor Brown’s nearly single-minded focus on climate change legislation, and the international Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September, the state legislature “hasn’t done that well” on other environmental policies Stone has worked on.
Stone mentioned his efforts supporting AB 1884, limiting the availability of single-use plastic drinking straws in favor of paper straws, as well as unsuccessfully trying to craft legislation requiring the caps of single-use plastic bottles be tethered to the bottles themselves, aimed at reducing pollution from plastics. Stone referenced these efforts in relation to his work on the Ocean Protections Council, which is engaged in larger projects reducing plastic waste and pollution in the ocean.
Turning to the issues surrounding the liability of PG&E for deadly wildfires, Stone explained the new legislature convening in January will be faced with a confluence of political forces including PG&E and other investor-owned utilities, insurance companies, local governments and citizens advocating for the emergency funding necessary to rebuild communities like the town of Paradise.
Stone explained the issues involved in the controversial, eleventh hour approval of Senate Bill 901 that addressed PG&E’s liability for the devastating fires of 2017, but that bill does not address liability issues for the most recent catastrophic fires this year.
After PG&E threatened bankruptcy due to liability for wildfires in 2017, SB 901 allowed investor-owned utilities such as PG&E to issue cost-recovery bonds, at “public agency” low interest rates, to be repaid by charges on ratepayers electric bills. Critics saw the bill as a “bail out” for utilities for the liability of starting or exacerbating fires due to negligence in the maintenance and upgrade of power lines, and making ratepayers foot the bill.
SB 901 temporarily settled the question of maintaining the state’s strict, “inverse condemnation” policy of 100 percent liability for damages done by utilities, which remains intact, but gave the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) the responsibility for deciding the “reasonableness” of a utility’s fire safety practices, as well as what costs can be passed on to ratepayers. This led to the PUC’s approval of PG&E’s statewide Community Wildfire Safety Program, a contentious program for many residents of the San Lorenzo Valley, and the subject of a formal complaint by members of the Environmental Committee of the Valley Women’s Club.
“PG&E wants to take the cheapest route- to cut trees rather than invest in the hardening and improvements to their infrastructure and shift the liability to ratepayers rather than stockholders,” Stone said. By way of comparison, Stone mentioned the heavy investment in improving power lines that San Diego Gas & Power made over the course of a decade after devastating fires in San Diego.
Stone made clear these thorny issues of liability for increasingly fatal wildfires were only settled for the fires of 2017, and new legislation will be necessary to address the most recent wildfires. Stone said he thought it is unfortunate the PUC shifted these issues to the legislature, rather than making and properly enforcing liability policies under its own authority. This was unfortunate, according to Stone, because it is more difficult for the legislature to “break through the corporate culture” of PG&E that is lobbying hard for changes in the utility liability law, but apparently the PUC is “not willing” or is ineffective at challenging that culture.
“We’re going to have to come up with mechanisms to make sure communities can recover- that capital is available, that there are solutions available for communities to come back together,” Stone explained. “It’s the infrastructure management that they (PG&E) need to be doing, and we’re going to keep pushing for that,” Stone said.
Specifically with regard to tree cutting in the San Lorenzo Valley, Stone said he thought PG&E initially took a very aggressive stance toward clearing brush and trees from their lines because they knew, eventually, the local political climate would try to slow them down or stop them, and insist on encroachment permits for cutting in the public right-of-way.
SB 901 circles back to Governor Brown’s emphasis on the climate change and California’s “cap and trade program.” SB 901 allocated $200 million annually in funding for forest management and fire prevention, welcomed by Cal Fire and local fire departments, funded by revenues from the carbon emission auctions of the “cap and trade” program.
“If you don’t think this is all getting driven by changes in the climate, then you’re not paying attention to what’s happening with the climate,” Stone said.