Why Jerry Brown bears considerable blame for PG&E’s deadly incompetence

By Chris Reed
March 2, 2020

When Gov. Jerry Brown left office in January 2019, most of the reviews of his second eight-year stint as leader of the nation’s richest, most populous state were effusive.

Citing his restoration of fiscal stability after the Capitol chaos seen in the last three years of the Schwarzenegger administration, Brown biographer Narda Zacchino declared he had “saved” the Golden State. Several California newspapers and East Coast media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, CNBC and Newsweek reached similar conclusions in their analyses of the latest chapter of the career of the two-time presidential candidate.

But history is certain to present a much more mixed picture of Brown. Two problems he inherited in 2011 got far worse while he was governor — and he bears considerable responsibility.

This is widely understood on the first of the two problems: the California bullet train. In 2011, Brown brought in an old friend — lawyer Dan Richard — to lead the state High-Speed Rail Authority as it fashioned plans to use $9.95 billion in voter-approved state bonds to build a rail network that could get passengers from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in under three hours.

For years, both Brown and Richard mocked skeptics of the project even as it missed deadlines, suffered huge cost overruns and faced credible criticism that the rail authority was lying to taxpayers and lawmakers alike. What the state now is trying to build — a $20.5 billion rail line going 171 miles from Bakersfield to Merced in the Central Valley — is so far behind schedule and so unlikely to ever be completed that Democratic leaders in San Francisco and Los Angeles want Gov. Gavin Newsom to pull the plug and divert remaining funds to urban transportation projects.

However, Brown’s botched handling of oversight of Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest power utility with 16 million customers, isn’t nearly as widely known. When Brown took office in 2011, the warning signs about PG&E’s slothful, unsafe internal culture were in plain sight. The previous year, PG&E’s incompetent maintenance of a natural gas pipeline led to a massive explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes — a disaster that eventually led to PG&E being found guilty of six federal felonies.

But not only did Brown and his appointees and allies on the California Public Utilities Commission not crack down on the utility, they opposed lawmakers’ and consumer attorneys’ efforts to make the commission do so. Brown once vetoed six reform bills in a single day that would have forced the agency to reveal more of its communications with the utilities it regulates and to honor lawmakers’ subpoenas. The two CPUC presidents under Brown were both his longtime friends  — Michael Peevey and then successor Michael Picker. They rejected criticism that their opposition to transparency had a dark motive, saying it was often necessary to protect proprietary information.

When Peevey left after a scandal mostly unrelated to PG&E in 2014, Brown’s choice Picker took over — just as the CPUC finalized work on what was supposed to be a penalty but actually amounted to a huge favor helping the utility. It was a $1.6 billion “fine” levied against PG&E for the San Bruno disaster. But $850 million of the “fine” was a requirement that PG&E upgrade its natural gas transmission line — which was already in the works before the “fine” and was inevitable even without the CPUC’s action.

After several terrifying fatal wildfires that ravaged parts of Northern California in 2017 and 2018 were linked to PG&E’s failure to properly trim trees and brush by its power lines, legislative rage forced PG&E defenders to retreat. 

But in November 2018, as PG&E faced what would eventually total $30 billion in claims over wildfire destruction, Picker acted yet again to help the utility, helping boost its stock price by 37 percent by telling Wall Street analysts he didn’t think it would go bankrupt. Two months later, however, PG&E did in fact enter a Chapter 11 bankruptcy from which it may never emerge.

But that was fine by Picker. In December 2018, he finally gave up on the utility and said it needed either a complete overhaul or to be broken up.

The last straw? An internal report that found that PG&E workers and their superiors had from 2012-2017 overseen the falsification of “tens of thousands” of gas safety inspections. Fittingly, this came during Brown’s final month as governor. The irresponsible utility he protected never changed its ways.

Brown has moved on to serve as executive chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which maintains the “Doomsday Clock” warning the world how close it is to nuclear disaster. This may seem perverse to PG&E’s beleaguered customers. As governor, Brown was an enabler of their utility’s deadly, costly disasters. Any account detailing his return to the Capitol that doesn’t mention this is woefully incomplete.

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Chris Reed is a contributing editor to California Policy Center, and an editorial writer and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisreed99.

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