On November 8, 2018, the most devastating wildfire in California history tore through the town of Paradise and countless other communities near it. Within four hours, 85 people were confirmed dead and tens of thousands of others had lost everything. An entire town was wiped off the map. When the smoke cleared, the origin of the fire was discovered. An electric line owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) had failed and sparked the blaze that was fueled by unusually dry conditions due to climate change.
PG&E has held a monopoly over gas and electric power in the northern two-thirds of California for decades. The company has a disturbing history of misusing funds. In 2012, an audit by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) found that PG&E had collected over $100 million in money meant for gas safety and operations from its customers and diverted it to profit for stockholders and bonuses for executives.
This report was spurred by a 2010 PG&E natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno. The company was forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the victims and their families, as well as a fine from the CPUC. However, no real change came from this incident, because a 2018 investigation by the CPUC discovered that since 2010, the company has consistently been falsifying data related to the marking of natural gas pipelines.
PG&E’s history of corruption and disregard for public safety has lead to multiple devastating wildfires in the state of California in the past few years. The company has faced multiple bankruptcies yet continues to operate and abuse the monopoly it holds over 16 million people in northern California. Now, in 2019, the company has begun enacting multiple days-long power outages during periods of high fire risk to compensate for its failure to maintain its own infrastructure. Customers are left without power and with poor communication from the company as to how long they’ll be in the dark. Interestingly, the most wealthy areas, like Silicon Valley, won’t face any outages. PG&E shows their hand here of who they are beholden to, and who they care about.
Wealthy people don’t need the protections that the rest of us need desperately, and yet they get it anyway. It is not difficult to see this issue as an example of one of the larger issues of climate change: that those causing the most damage don’t feel the most impact. The people least responsible for causing climate change bear the brunt of its impacts. Air and water pollution affect the most vulnerable people in the country, such as in poor cities like Flint, MI, or in Native American communities as evidenced by the Dakota Access Pipeline. The entire population of Paradise, California, a town with a median household income only slightly above the poverty line, was displaced while the PG&E continues to collect money from the people it victimized with its negligence.
These social problems will only become more apparent in the coming decades as we face further consequences of climate change. It is urgent that we act to reign in massive corporations that work above the law.