Politics vs. pipelines

Why did PG&E spend $46 million on politics instead of its risky pipelines?

PG&E knew there was a gas leak in San Bruno. Up to three weeks before the massive explosion last Thursday (Sept. 9) that killed at least four people, injured dozens more and leveled 52 houses, residents informed the utility they smelled gas. PG&E representatives reportedly searched for the leak, didn’t find it, and gave up the search.

According to the nonprofit online news service The Bay Citizen, some residents of the neighborhood at the epicenter of the gas-main explosion said the utility had a crew at the site for three or four days before the blast. Residents who complained about the odor were told to close their garage doors to avoid smelling it.

The Bay Citizen reports that, “As early as 2007, Pacific Gas and Electric company officials considered a portion of the gas main … to be at ‘unacceptably’ high risk for failure,” according to internal documents. A particular 7,481-foot section in the area was considered one of PG&E’s “top 100 highest-risk line sections,” but was not scheduled to be replaced until 2013.

In fact, since 2009 PG&E has been collecting higher rates from customers in the area specifically to repair such “unacceptably high-risk” lines, but it has not done the work.

Critics have pointed out that the $46 million the utility spent last year trying to pass Proposition 16, a cynical—and ultimately unsuccessful—exercise in ballot-box chicanery designed to limit local democracy and protect PG&E’s monopoly, could have fixed a lot of pipeline.

As Christine Pelosi asks, on her Huffington Post blog, “Why didn’t the utility spend ratepayer money on fixing the high-risk problem? Why did management decide to spend ratepayer dollars on political campaigns instead of pipeline repairs? Why set these deadly priorities? If the two decisions were not related—why weren’t they? And what will we do to make it right?”

Good questions. We’re eager to hear how PG&E answers them.