As California Burns Again, Rep. Ro Khanna Calls for PG&E to Become Publicly Owned Utility

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Extreme winds of up to 60 miles per hour caused new fires to erupt across southern California Wednesday, prompting tens of thousands to evacuate. The blazes are just the latest in a spate of climate change-fueled fires threatening the state. In Northern California, firefighters have finally beat back the Sonoma County Kincade Fire that had forced nearly 200,000 people to flee their homes over the weekend. Nearly all evacuees in the region have now been allowed to return to their homes and the utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric said Wednesday it would begin restoring power to the 365,000 customers who were plunged into darkness over the weekend as fires first erupted across the state. PG&E — the corporation that controls most of Northern and Central California’s electricity and the biggest utility in America — has been implicated in many of the fires that have ravaged California in recent years, including the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and completely destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018. In January, PG&E declared bankruptcy amid a number of lawsuits related to the wildfires. We speak with California Congressmember Ro Khanna, who is calling for the California state government to take over control of PG&E. Khanna says, “PG&E is basically a private monopoly that gets a return on investment for their private investors, but has no competition. It is the worst of both worlds.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Extreme winds of up to 60 miles per hour caused new fires to erupt across southern California Wednesday, prompting tens of thousands to evacuate. The blazes are just the latest in a spate of climate change-fueled fires threatening the state. In Ventura County north of Los Angeles, the so-called Easy Fire came nearly to the doorstep of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as hundreds of firefighters worked to control the blaze. This is a homeowner in the area.

HOMEOWNER: I’ve lived in California all my life, here in Southern California, and we’ve always encountered the Santa Ana winds and the fires, but not to this extent. So in the last five years, it has been a little bit different. And like I said, it’s just a game-changer for us all. It’s the new normal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: News of the latest evacuations came after the National Weather Service in Los Angeles issued an “extreme red flag warning” for Southern California for the first time in its history. Fires in California are typical at this time of year, but the length and severity of the state’s fire season has grown due to climate change. Evacuations have been lifted for the Getty Fire, which erupted in one of Los Angeles’s most opulent neighborhoods on Monday.

AMY GOODMAN: In Northern California, firefighters have finally beat back the Sonoma County Kincade Fire that had forced nearly 200,000 people to flee their homes over the weekend, firefighters reaching 45% containment of what had been the most threatening fire in California. Nearly all evacuees in the region have now been allowed to return to their homes.

This comes as the public utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric said Wednesday it would begin restoring power to the 365,000 customers who were plunged into darkness over the weekend as fires first erupted across the state. PG&E, the corporation that controls most of Northern and Central California’s electricity and the biggest utility in America, has been implicated in many of the fires that have ravaged California in recent years, including the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and completely destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018. In January, PG&E declared bankruptcy, facing a number of lawsuits related to the wildfires, but it still controls much of California’s power grid.

For more, we go to a lawmaker who is calling for the California state government to take over control of PG&E and make it a public utility. Congressmember Ro Khanna joins us now from Washington, D.C. Congressmember Khanna, later in the broadcast, we’re going to talk to you about this epic day around this issue of impeachment. But right now we’re focusing on what is happening in California, which is also, to say the least, epic, and this state of emergency. Explain for people around the world who don’t understand how PG&E operates what it is now and what you are calling for.

REP. RO KHANNA: First of all, it has been a disaster in the Bay Area where I live. People’s homes are being destroyed by fire. Many thousands of people are without basic electricity. PG&E is basically a private monopoly that gets a return on investment for their private investors but has no competition. It’s the worst of both worlds. It is a monopoly, a private monopoly, and yet it has exclusive jurisdiction over a particular zone so it doesn’t have the competition that free markets usually have.

And this has resulted in PG&E making systematic underinvestments. They have not secured the power lines. They have not engaged in the brush-clearing that was necessary to make sure that these fires did not escalate. They have no provision for backup power, even though this was completely foreseeable. At the same time, they are paying their CEO $9.8 million and the investors are making money. And this mismanagement has led to bankruptcy.

What I have said is in a case where you have a private monopoly without competition, that is a case of public ownership where you’re not having a profit motive and extractive capitalism. The state should take over PG&E and different municipalities should run the power distribution for their cities and then the state should provide it to rural areas where the cities can’t do the job.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Representative Ro Khanna, how common is it in the U.S. that gas and electricity are provided by private corporations? I myself was confused that this PG&E is called a public utility, but in fact it is private.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s technically a public investor utility. In other words, there is public regulatory oversight over it—the California Public Utilities Commission—but it is private investment and it has a private board of directors and they determine the executive compensation. And the public regulators really don’t have much ability to move PG&E. At the same time, PG&E is pouring millions of dollars into the governor’s campaign, into state legislators’ campaigns. So the process has been co-opted by these special interests.

Unfortunately, most of the country, many states, have public investment utilities. And this is why Bernie Sanders and his Green New Deal plan have said that we need to move to publicly owned utilities. And we know publicly owned utilities, particularly municipalities, are much better. It’s lower cost for residents, their energy mix tends to be much more renewable, their safety standard tends to be much higher and you take the profit motive of extractive capitalism out of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And so what would need to happen for it to become an actual publicly owned utility controlled by the state of California? And can you explain, for example, how that might have changed the outcome of what happened in Paradise, California, which burned to the ground, killing 85 people last year?

REP. RO KHANNA: Absolutely. Had PG&E been a publicly owned utility instead of paying $9.8 million to the CEO—because there is no way California voters or taxpayers would have allowed that—PG&E would have been required to make the investments in the safety of the power lines. They would have been forced to make the investment in clearing out the brush or trees where they were in dangerous positions. I had someone in my district who said that PG&E had come two months ago saying nine trees needed to be removed because they were a fire hazard and no one has followed up. So there would be far more public accountability.

There also would be a much larger source of renewable energy. In my district, Silicon Valley Power is a public utility, in Santa Clara. They have almost 40% of their energy being renewable, they have lower rates and they are much safer. So how do we get there? PG&E currently is in bankruptcy. Their entire market cap is about $2 billion. California, as you know, has a state surplus. We could easily take over the utility in bankruptcy either by issuing bonds or by using some of that surplus.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to talk about what is happening in California. In addition to Congressmember Ro Khanna, we will be joined by Amika Mota, who is a former prisoner firefighter, and talk about what that means and for the prisoners today who are fighting fires. And we will speak with an L.A. Times reporter who has been talking to people who are heading to these estates that are blazing and the workers don’t realize this. The owners have evacuated but the workers haven’t been told. Stay with us.

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