Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Reality Check in the Face of CHUTZPAH

I doubt that yesterday's Chutzpah of the Week award had anything to do with the recent turn of events over the question of who will pay for the damages brought on by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) gas-line explosion in San Bruno. More likely it was just a matter of my voice being one among many, but I was still glad to be singing in this particular choir. Here are the lead paragraphs from this morning's story filed by Bob Egelko, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Tuesday that it would not take advantage of a utility-backed proposal that would saddle customers with uninsured costs from catastrophic fires to bill the public for last week's deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

However, PG&E did not rule out the possibility that its 6 million customers could be stuck with some of the bill. The utility said it will abide by the state's current system, under which regulators decide whether customers or utility shareholders must pay for fire damage that the company's insurance doesn't cover.

Note the phrasing in that first sentence. Yesterday's account at least implied that the proposal had been initiated by PG&E, but this was not the case. As Egelko observed in today's piece, the proposal had much earlier origins:

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. sponsored the current proposal in response to Southern California wildfires in 2007 that caused more than $1 billion in damage.

Furthermore, it turns out that PG&E has a "Division of Ratepayer Advocates," which has now issued a statement on behalf of Main Street:

A lawyer with the PUC's Division of Ratepayer Advocates, which represents consumer interests before the commission, said the division still opposes the utility proposal on wildfire costs.

"We don't think it is fair to ratepayers to be insurers of last resort," the attorney, Jack Stoddard, said after the hearing. Utility shareholders, he said, "have to have skin in the game," potentially exposing them to liability if the company neglects public safety.

This could, of course, be window dressing; and, when it comes to chutzpah, deeds definitely count for more than words. So I am not inclined to rescind yesterday's award. It would do better to display it prominently in the PG&E Board Room as decision-making continues over just what this utility company will be doing about the damage it has done and its potential for causing further damage.

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