PG&E’s self-serving campaign

by Chuck Arnold , Lompoc Record

The political ads are filling the mailbox again. Today’s is a card 8 1/2-by-11 in red, white and blue. It is bigger than yesterday’s.

The card shows a check made out to ‘Local Politicians’ in the amount of $2,500,000.

That sounds like Mayor Mike Siminski and Council Members Ann Ruhge, Cecilia Martner, Bob Lingl and Tony Durham are on their way to South America with our money.

In confirming white-on-blue, I read, ‘Taxpayers’ Right to Vote’ can apparently be preserved by voting for Proposition 16.

I always like to check the fine print to see who paid for this Paul Revere patriotism alerting me to the dangers ahead.

‘Major funding from Pacific Gas & Electric Company’ it reads at the bottom.

According to state and election finance reports, PG&E has put up a fortune for this and all the other advertising ‘ $44 million.

Opponents have raised $60,000. That’s almost 1,000-to-1 in favor of PG&E.

So PG&E, the largest for-profit utility in the state, with $1.2 billion in profits in 2009, wants to help me out. How thoughtful.

PG&E is the company which foolishly sold off its natural gas power plants in the 1990s then had to declare bankruptcy in 2001. No worry, the state of California bailed them out with rate increases. PG&E emerged from bankruptcy in April 2004, after distributing $10.2 billion to hundreds of creditors. Its

4.8 million electricity customers are expected to pay an average $1,300 to $1,700 each in above-market prices through 2012 to cover the bankruptcy.

The Consumer Federation of America reports that ‘like Wall Street, PG&E paid huge bonuses to its executives even after it went bankrupt and rate payers bailed out.’ So that’s why Lompoc, not served by PG&E, pays less for electricity, than Vandenberg Village, which is served by PG&E.

Remember the 2000 movie ‘Erin Brockovich’? It was PG&E which told the folks in little Hinkley, that Hexavalent chromium in their drinking water was no danger to their health. The case was settled in 1996 for

$333 million, the largest settlement ever in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history.

Proposition 16 has very little to do with taxpayers’ right to vote and everything to do with PG&E’s bottom line.

That’s not just the opinion of a small-town pastor.

‘… The backers of Proposition 16 want to fool the voters. They say this measure is about protecting taxpayers. But what it really protects is the monopoly enjoyed by a giant, for-profit electric utility,’ write leaders of AARP, the Sierra Club and the Consumer Federation of America.

‘Most people would agree that if a local nonprofit organization wants to buy green power at wholesale rates, and sell it to communities at an affordable cost, it should be allowed to do so. But Proposition 16 makes it just about impossible.’

What’s really bothering PG&E is that communities are beginning to do what Lompoc has done for years through Northern California Power Agency (NCPA), thanks to forward-thinking leaders like Joe Valencia and Mike Siminski.

According to the NCPA, Proposition 16 ‘would require multiple two-thirds votes for any public power utility to expand electric service outside of its existing territory, or, potentially even to build new generation and transmission facilities outside of its territory to serve existing customers.’ The NCPA and member cities Lompoc, Lodi, Palo Alto, Redding and Roseville have passed resolutions opposing Proposition 16.

‘The big losers under this measure are California consumers ‘ especially, from our perspective, public power customers throughout the state,’ says Larry Hansen, chairman of the NCPA. ‘This measure is about protecting PG&E’s monopoly to the detriment of customers and rate payers. Proposition 16 would prevent publicly owned utilities from the current residents and those living in the newly annexed area.’

The California Council of Churches points out that PG&E would not have to worry about a two-thirds vote to expand. ‘They will be free to increase monopoly control over services and new energy sources since they would not have to wait for a vote on every expansion plan. By securing their absolute control over all customers, Proposition 16 is simply a way of assuring that for-profit utilities will never have significant competition from publicly-owned utilities and that will be at the consumer and rate-payer’s expense.’

Newspapers are lining up 13-2 in opposition, including the Record. As the Fresno Bee editorialized, ‘The PG&E ballot measure is another example of the initiative process going awry in California, of a powerful special interest seizing the initiative process for its own narrow benefit.’

AARP, the Council of Churches, the California Farm Bureau, the California Association of Realtors, The Consumers Federation of California, the League of Women Voters, the Federation of Labor and Sierra Club are all opposed.

Quoting the Utility Reform Network: ‘It’s just wrong for PG&E to take money from families, and then spend it on a political campaign to benefit itself.’

Just wrong.

Chuck Arnold is pastor of the Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ in Vandenberg Village.