TURN, the residential ratepayer intervenor group, submitted a comment letter to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) bankruptcy investigation proceeding (I.19-09-016). TURN has some harsh statements asking for denial of recovery of some large expenses, including wildfire victim payments and legal fees. One particular passage caught my attention:
The stark truth is that PG&E is a recidivist felon that has caused multiple
major catastrophes within the space of a decade.
I looked up the definition on Wikipedia. (There are other definitions that differ some.)
Recidivism is the act of a person repeating an undesirable behavior after they have either experienced negative consequences of that behavior, or have been trained to extinguish that behavior. It is also used to refer to the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested for a similar offense.
But does “recidivist” apply in this situation for this reason: Has PG&E really suffered negative consequences from its previous behavior? So far, despite being convicted of felonies twice in the last decade, PG&E has been fined a total of $6.5 million for the San Bruno gas line explosion and the Camp Fire, which is equal to just over 4 hours of revenues for PG&E, and no one has gone to prison. PG&E continues to hold its franchise with few restrictions over most of northern California, and it appears headed for exiting bankruptcy by June 30 with a favorable finance plan in which current shareholders still hold most of the equity. It’s also not obvious how PG&E has been “trained” to extinguish its behavior, although the CPUC has instituted more oversight.
So, it’s not clear where and how PG&E has suffered significant negative consequences for its criminal acts, unless you consider “flea bites” as real punishment. To the contrary, PG&E has turned each of these events into money making enterprises. The first was by catching up on its deferred natural gas pipeline maintenance that it should have been spending on for decades. Instead, the CPUC could have simply ordered that the deferred spending be taken from past revenues. The second is the added investment of billions in hardening the rural distribution system and setting up back up generation in danger areas. That will add hundreds of millions or even a couple billion to annual revenues, all delivering a 10%+ return to company shareholders. Instead of negative consequences, PG&E has been able to turn these convictions into positive financial gains for its investors.
Governor Gavin Newsom asked Warren Buffet to use Berkshire-Hathaway to buy PG&E. Berkshire-Hathaway has been acquiring utilities throughout the West including PacifiCorp and Nevada Power. However, other than deep pockets, it’s not clear what Buffet has to offer in this situation.
PG&E’s stock fell as low as $3.80 per share on Tuesday, closing at $5.03. The total market value, including the natural gas utility, is now $2.66 billion. The invested book value on the other hand is about $26 billion.
Not sure why California doesn’t just buy the company for, say, $5B instead of appealing to an out of state private owner. Several state legislators, including a key state senator, Bill Dodd, have expressed support for some sort of state acquisition. Then the state can either parse it out to public utilities, set up a cooperative or bid out the franchises to multiple operators or owners. Ratepayers/taxpayers will have to pay most of the wildfire liabilities anyway, so why not remove the high-cost (and apparently incompetent) middleman?
M.Cubed partner Steven Moss wrote this editorial “Publisher’s View: Pacific Gas and Electric Company” in the Potrero View on how PG&E might move forward into the future.
The California Legislature is still struggling with whether and how it should protect PG&E from a $17 billion liability from the Sonoma wildfires that could push the utility into bankruptcy. The latest proposal would have the CPUC conduct a “stress test” on PG&E’s finances if it faced a large liability, and then PG&E could raise rates sufficiently to cover the difference between the total liability and exposure deemed sufficient to maintain financial solvency. We don’t have enough details to understand how well the stress threshold is defined and how it would differ from the current cost of capital evaluations, but this is a bad idea regardless.
Firms need the threat of bankruptcy to perform efficiently and effectively. We’ve already seen how PG&E manages and performs sloppily, whether its maintaining vegetation (which has been a problem since the early 1990s), tracking its pipeline maintenance (which led to the San Bruno accident), or managing risk in its renewable power portfolio (which has added a $33 per megawatt-hour premium to its cost.) Clearly CPUC oversight alone is not doing the job. Outside litigation may be the only way to get PG&E’s attention, especially if it creates an existential threat.
Policymakers have taken the wrong lesson from PG&E’s previous bankruptcy, filed in 2001 during the California energy crisis. The issue there that lead to the final resolution was whether PG&E was required to provide power to its customers at whatever cost. This situation is not about PG&E’s obligations but rather about its management practices, and a bankruptcy court is much less likely to require a cost pass through.
Instead, the state could simply step in buy PG&E for $1 if the utility declares bankruptcy (an option that Governor Gray Davis was too much of a coward to consider in March 2001.) The state could then directly manage the utility, or better yet, parse it down to eight or ten smaller utilities. (Two studies in PG&E’s 1999 General Rate Case, and the subsequent decision, found that the most efficient utility size is about 500,000 customers. PG&E now has over four million.) Customers would find the utilities more accessible and responsive, and by creating municipal utilities, rates could be much lower with cheaper financing cost. It’s time to rethink where we should head.