Protecting taxpayer interests in the fire liability fight

Thomas FireOne of the most contentious political battles currently being waged in Sacramento during the final two weeks of the legislative session is over the extent to which investor-owned utilities, such as Pacific Gas & Electric, should be held liable and have to compensate property owners for the damage inflicted by the horrendous wildfires that are still burning across the state. Average California taxpayers and homeowners probably sense this is a big deal because of extensive media coverage, but may not know what to think about it.

Here’s what’s going on.

First, there is little dispute that the number of wildfires and their intensity has increased dramatically in recent years. Investor-owned utilities, including PG&E as well as San Diego Gas & Electric, have been forced into big legal settlements because many fires were allegedly caused by electrical wires or other equipment. The utilities, however, have attempted to shift some of the blame to natural causes such as climate change, which they argue produces the conditions for more catastrophic fires. (More recently, blame has also been placed at California’s mismanagement of public lands, which is undoubtedly a contributing cause).

Determining liability for wildfires is such a hot issue — no pun intended — because of the amount of money involved. San Diego Gas & Electric was facing more than 2,500 lawsuits and thus paid $2.4 billion in settlements for its role in three 2007 fires that burned over 1,500 homes, took human lives and burned 368,316 acres in San Diego County. Fires still burning as this column is being written have inflicted even greater damage and loss of life.

These damages have rocked PG&E and SDG&E.  According to a January blog post from the Energy Institute at Hass, California utilities lost $20 billion in market capitalization after last year’s fires.

In an effort to lessen their liability, the utilities say a constitutional doctrine called inverse condemnation has compelled them to settle lawsuits from property owners, firefighting agencies and local governments. They believe the doctrine entitles them to recoup some of the expenses by raising rates, but California’s Public Utility Commission has balked.

Although the utilities’ efforts to offload some of their liability for fire damage is understandable, taxpayer advocates are opposing the shift as it diminishes their own property rights.  The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association views limited taxation on property as a natural extension of property rights generally.  For example, following the infamous Kelo v. New London decision by the United States Supreme Court allowing the use of eminent domain for private-to-private transfers of property, HJTA fought for both a state constitutional, as well as statutory, prohibition of those takings.  Other property-rights issues of major concern to taxpayer advocates include the attempt to expand rent control in California and ensuring that just compensation is paid to property owners for traditional exercises of eminent domain, especially for boondoggle projects like California’s High Speed Rail project. …

Click here to read the full article from the Pasadena Star News

PG&E Seeks Protection From Costs of Wildfires They Cause

A wildfire rages in Buck Meadows, in the Yosemite National ParkCalifornia’s three large investor-owned utilities are renewing efforts to allow them to make ratepayers cover the costs of wildfires that authorities blame on utilities’ mistakes or poor maintenance.

Pacific Gas & Electric officials made this clear last week when they announced they expected to have at least $2.5 billion in liabilities from the wildfires that scarred the wine country of Northern California last October. That sum is only for 12 relatively small blazes that the state blames on PG&E’s failure to maintain equipment and clear brush near power lines. Authorities are still looking at what caused the biggest blaze – the Tubbs fire – which torched more than 3,000 homes in Sonoma County and is blamed in the deaths of 22 people.

PG&E CEO-President Geisha Williams used a conference call with analysts to make the case for state legislation to protect electricity utilities from bankruptcy in an era in which huge wildfires – blamed on hotter, drier weather – are more common than ever. PG&E only has an estimated $840 million in insurance coverage to deal with the 200 and counting lawsuits from the wine country conflagrations.

Williams said “flawed” state laws made utilities responsible for fire risks that were beyond their control. But in a decision-making process that began last summer – before the wine country blazes – and ended after they were finally put out, the California Public Utilities Commission rejected a similar argument put forward by San Diego Gas & Electric. In August, CPUC staff recommended that commissioners reject an SDG&E request to pass along to ratepayers $379 million in unrecovered costs from 2007 wildfires that ravaged San Diego County. After three months of wavering, the CPUC board voted unanimously in late November to deny the request.

Williams said negative media coverage of the October fires complicated utilities’ efforts to get help from the California Legislature. But some utility watchdogs are still wary of state lawmakers, whom they see as sending out mixed signals on wildfire liabilities.

On the one hand, the state Senate voted 39-0 in May and an Assembly committee voted 15-0 last week for Senate Bill 819. It would ban the CPUC from allowing utilities to pass along to ratepayers the costs of fines or penalties as well as the cost of damages that were “caused” by a utility’s infrastructure. Only costs the CPUC deems “just and reasonable” can be shifted from shareholders to ratepayers under the legislation. PG&E and Southern California Edison expressed “concerns” about the bill without formally opposing it, according to a legislative analysis.

Benign bill pushing responsibility – or stealth bailout?

But another bill that had similarly lopsided support in the Senate is drawing a very mixed response. Senate Bill 1088 passed the Senate 34-2 in late May and survived an Assembly committee vote last week with eight lawmakers in support, two in opposition and five declining to vote.

It would require utilities “to submit a safety, reliability and resiliency plan to the California Public Utilities Commission every two years.” It would also require the state Office of Emergency Services “to adopt standards for reducing risks from a major event and requires the office to update the standards at least once every two years.”

Supporters – including PG&E, SDG&E, labor unions and some counties hit hard by last year’s blazes – depict the measure as a benign attempt to make sure utilities are prepared to handle their responsibilities.

But critics see the language requiring the state to regularly “update” how it evaluates risks posed by the biggest blazes as potentially giving legal ammunition to the utilities – specifically, to their arguments that emerging, more dangerous conditions should change what costs can be shifted on a “fair and reasonable” basis to ratepayers.

Formal opponents of SB1088 include groups which have standing to challenge utilities’ proposed rate hikes (The Utility Reform Network and the Office of Ratepayer Advocates); business interests (the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, the Western States Petroleum Association and farm groups); and green activists (most notably the California Environmental Justice Alliance).

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Brexit’s Energy Lesson for California

Brexit“California’s largest utility and environmental groups announced a deal Tuesday [June 21] to shutter the last nuclear power plant in the state.” This statement from the Associated Press reporting about the announced closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant should startle you. The news about shutting down California’s last operating nuclear power plant, especially after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) had sought a 20-year extension of the operating licenses for the two reactors, is disappointing—not startling. What should pique your ire is that the “negotiated proposal,” as the Wall Street Journal called it, is between the utility company and environmental groups—with no mention of the regulators elected to insure that consumers have efficient, effective and economical electricity.

Who put the environmental groups in charge? Not the California voters. But unelected environmental groups—and their bureaucratic friends in various government agencies—have been dictating energy policy for the most of the past decade. Regarding the “negotiated proposal,” WSJ points out: “The agreement wades deeply into intricate energy procurement, environmental and rate-setting matters that are normally the exclusive jurisdiction of state agencies.”

California has a goal of generating half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and environmental groups are calling for the state officials to replace Diablo’s generating capacity with “renewable power sources.” Realize that this one nuclear power plant provides twice as much electricity as all of California’s solar panels combined.

Bloomberg Intelligence analysts’ research concluded that PG&E “would need 10,500 megawatts of new solar installations to replace all of Diablo Canyon’s output” and that, without including potential costs of new transmission lines or back-up resources for solar, will cost $15 billion—with totals, including decommissioning, estimated at $20 billion.

The Bloomberg report states: “PG&E will ask that customers make up any shortfall.”

Actual costs, Bloomberg says: “could be lower because the company expects to compensate for lower demand and replace only part of the production.” Why will there be lower demand? The WSJ explains: “the plan calls for new power sources to furnish only a portion of the electricity that Diablo Canyon generates, assuming that greater energy efficiency in the future will also curb some power demand.”

All of this is announced while California is experiencing, and expecting more, blackouts due to “a record demand for energy” and because “there just aren’t enough gas pipelines for what’s needed,” according to CNN Money. “Southern California,” reports WSJ, “is vulnerable to energy disruptions because it relies on a complex web of electric transmission lines, gas pipelines and gas storage facilities—all running like clockwork—to get enough electricity. If any piece is disabled, it can mean electricity shortages. Gas is the state’s chief fuel for power generation, not coal. But the pipelines can only bring in about 3 billion cubic feet of working gas a day into Southern California, below the daily demand, which gets as high as 5.7 billion cubic feet.”

California’s Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s power grid, therefore, has warned of “significant risk” that there may not be enough natural gas which could result in “outages for as many as 14 summer days.” CNN Money reports: “Natural gas has played a bigger role for California as the state has tried to phase out coal and nuclear power”—environmental groups oppose the use of all of these three power sources.

It is expected that Diablo Canyon’s generating capacity will, in part, be replaced with more natural gas—which is good news for fracking. Eric Schmitt, vice president of operations for the California Independent System Operator, said: “California needs more flexibility in how it generates power so it can balance fluctuating output from wind and solar projects. Gas plants can be turned off and on quickly.”

As coal-fueled electricity has been outlawed in California, and environmental groups have pushed to close nuclear power plants, and routinely block any new proposed natural gas pipelines, black outs will become frequent. California’s energy demand doesn’t match solar power’s production.

This dilemma makes “energy efficiency” a key component of the environmental groups’ decrees—which parallels the European Union’s policies that were a part of Britain’s “exit” decision (known as “Brexit”).

When the EU’s energy efficiency standards for small appliances were first proposed, then German EU energy commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, according to the Telegraph, said: “All EU countries agree energy efficiency is the most effective method to reduce energy consumption and dependence on imports and to improve the climate. Therefore there needs to be mandatory consumption limits for small electrical appliances.” In 2014, the EU, in the name of energy efficiency, sparked public outcry in Britain when it banned powerful vacuum cleaners with motors above 1600 watts. It then proposed to “ban high powered kettles and toasters” as part of the “Eco-design Directive” aimed at reducing the energy consumption of products.

The EU’s Eco-design Directive’s specific requirements are to be published as “Implementing Measures”—which, according to Conformance.co.uk, are made “as European Law Commission Regulations.” It explains that this process allows the directives to “enter into force in all the member states without requiring a transcription process in their National Law. Thus they can be issued much more quickly than the usual Directive Process.”

When the EU’s high-powered toaster/tea-kettle ban was announced, it became “a lightning rod for public anger at perceived meddling by Brussels”—which was seen as “intruding too much into citizens’ daily lives.” When the ban was announced, retailers reported a spike, as high as 95 percent, in toaster and electric tea-kettle sales. The European overreach became such ammunition in Britain’s Brexit referendum, that Brussels stalled the ban until after the election and engaged in a now-failed public relations exercise with “green campaigners” to speak out in favor of the toaster and tea-kettle regulations that were believed to have “considerable energy saving potential.”

The Brits didn’t buy it. It is reported that top of the list for “leave” voters were “EU Rules and Regulations.” Matthew Elliot, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign said: “If we vote remain we will be powerless to prevent an avalanche of EU regulations that Brussels is delaying until after the referendum.”

Brussels’ toaster and tea-kettle ban, which were perceived as an assault on the British staples, has been called “bonkers” and “too barmy to be true.” Specifically addressing the ban, Elliot said: “The EU now interferes with so many aspects of our lives, from our breakfast to our borders.” David Coburn, a UK Independence party MEP from Scotland, who recently bought a new toaster and tea kettle grumbled: “I think I must have bought a euro-toaster, I have to put bread in it five times and it’s still pale and pasty. Perhaps it’s powered by windmills. And the kettle? Watching a kettle boil has never been so boring.”

While energy efficiency directives banning Keurig coffee makers would be more likely to draw similar ridicule from Californians, there is a lesson to be learned from the Brexit decision: too much regulation results in referendums to overturn them. It is widely believed that, with Brexit and new leadership, many of the EU’s environmental regulations, including the Paris Climate Agreement, will be adjusted or abandoned.

More and more Americans are reaching the same conclusion as our British cousins about the overreach of rules and regulations. As Coburn concluded: “What we want is to let the free market reign, not this diktat by bureaucrat.”

The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc., and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). She hosts a weekly radio program: America’s Voice for Energy—which expands on the content of her weekly column. Follow her @EnergyRabbit.

PG&E slapped with record $1.6 billion penalty for fatal San Bruno explosion

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

SAN FRANCISCO — State regulators slapped PG&E with a record-setting $1.6 billion penalty Thursday for causing the fatal gas-pipeline explosion in San Bruno more than four years ago, after a hearing marked by emotional statements from victims of the blast and sharp words about continued flaws in the utility’s safety record.

“PG&E is safer. But I just don’t believe PG&E is safe enough,” Michael Picker, president of the state Public Utilities Commission, told this newspaper in an interview after the PUC voted 4-0 to levy the penalty. Citing numerous lapses involving PG&E’s sprawling natural gas pipeline system since the 2010 San Bruno explosion, Picker said he was ordering the PUC to conduct a wide-ranging probe into PG&E’s safety culture.

Thursday’s hearing and the contentious process that led up to it brought almost as much scrutiny and criticism of the PUC as it did of PG&E. Federal regulators sharply criticized how …

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