Lawmakers challenge PG&E, as utility warns of more mass power shutdowns

Good morning, California.

“We don’t want Californians to think they’re living in Puerto Rico because they are not.”— Ana Matosantos testified at a Senate hearing Monday. She’s Gov. Gavin Newsom’s energy czar and also serves on a board overseeing the financial restructuring of Puerto Rico, including the island’s electric grid.

  • PG&E Chief Executive Officer William Johnson told the senators: “Repeatedly turning off power for millions of people in one of the most advanced economies in the world, even in the interest of safety, is not a sustainable solution to the wildfire threats we face.”
  • PG&E warned that 800,000 people could lose their power Wednesday and Thursday as wind-driven fire weather is expected to return.

PG&E faces tough questions

PG&E CEO William Johnson at a Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee hearing Monday

California lawmakers heaped harsh criticism on PG&E for its massive power shutoffs, with some calling for a public takeover of the bankrupt utility.

Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco: “This company in my mind has forfeited its right to operate as an investor-owned utility.”

High hurdles and huge cost: The California Public Utilities Commission would have to revoke the utility’s franchise and the state would have to overcome the 5th Amendment, which prevents taking private property for public use without just compensation.

In a daylong Senate oversight hearing, PG&E Chief Executive Officer William Johnson said: “I do work for the shareholders, let’s not kid ourselves about that.”

He’d like to keep PG&E in private ownership but sought to strike a conciliatory tone, acknowledging that an Oct. 9 blackout affecting 2 million customers “wasn’t perfect.”

He said the utility is working to reduce the blackout footprint by one-third by next year’s wildfire season, even as the wildfire risk has dramatically increased.

  • Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat: “I looked at what happened on Oct. 9 as a big ‘screw you’ to your customers, to the Legislature, to the governor.”
  • Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat who represents fire-ravaged Sonoma County: “You are behind in modernization, grid hardening and vegetation management.”

Johnson said the utility has invested $30 billion in its system over the past decade.

  • Sen. John Moorlach, a skeptical Republican from Costa Mesa: “Where did you spend that $30 billion?”

California, L.A. take aim at Juul

A California public health ad aimed at deterring teen use of JUUL and other e-cigarettes.
Photo courtesy of TobaccoFreeCA.com

From its inception, Juul Labs, the nation’s leading e-cigarette company, used tobacco industry marketing techniques and technology, and knew the essential ingredient in its product, nicotine salts, is addictive, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey allege in a lawsuit Monday. 

The suit filed in Alameda County Superior Court alleges that Juul:

  • Marketed to kids from its beginnings
  • Falsely claimed the vapor didn’t contain such hazardous chemicals as formaldehyde
  • Failed to warn that the product contained chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive harm

The company failed to verify ages of people who mail-ordered e-cigarettes, for example, sending 17 shipments to someone who referred to him or herself as “Beer Can.”

The suit details how the San Francisco-based company’s founders Adam Bowen and James Monsees, who met at Stanford, studied documents at UC San Francisco’s tobacco industry archive to learn about tobacco advertising techniques and understand addictive nicotine salts.

Juul’s packaging mimicked Marlboro, prompting tobacco giant Philip Morris to accuse Juul of infringing on its design. Altria, Philip Morris’ parent, since bought a 35% stake in Juul.

  • Juul spokesman Austin Finan: “Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers, and we do not intend to attract underage users.”

Money matters: The suit seeks $2,500 for each violation, a number that could become astronomical.

  • Lacey: “They should pay. … They knew about the tobacco industry and the harm it caused, and yet they just forged right ahead for the sake of a buck.”

Harris watch: Dismal polls

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris in Long Beach this past weekend

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ sputtering presidential campaign got more bad news Monday:

A Public Policy Institute of California poll shows 8% of likely Democratic voters back Harris. 

The first-term Democratic senator is a distant fourth among Democratic presidential candidates in California, and seventh in South Carolina, new polls show. Harris had built her campaign around a belief that she would win both states but scrapped that plan and is running hard in Iowa, where she also trails badly.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden leads with 24% of likely Democratic voters in California, followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 23% and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 17%.

A Quinnipiac University poll shows Harris is backed by a mere 3% of likely Democratic voters in South Carolina, to Biden’s 33%, Warren’s 13% and Sanders’ 11%. 

  • Only 6% of African-American Democrats in South Carolina are backing Harris, compared with Biden’s 44%

Following tough pieces in Politico, New York Magazine reported Monday:

  • “It’s unclear how or where Harris can revive her fortunes, particularly given the ‘campaign in disarray’ gossip that surrounds her these days.”

Harris has until Dec. 26 to pull her name off the March 3 ballot in California.

Impeachment watch

trump newsom clean air emissions electric vehicles
President Donald Trump

By a 53-45% margin, likely California voters believe President Donald Trump should be impeached and removed from office, a new Public Policy Institute of California poll shows.

Impeachment and removal is supported by:

  • 85% of Democratic voters
  • 60% of women, Latinos and likely voters who are 44 or younger

Surprising? No: Only 39% of Californians approve of Trump’s job performance, though that’s up from 35% in September.

Impeachment is opposed by:

  • 90% of Republicans, though 20% of self-described conservatives support it
  • 62% of likely Central Valley voters, a swing part of the state
  • 51% in the Inland Empire, and 50% in Orange and San Diego counties, also swing parts of the state

Voters skeptical of school bond

california school bond initiative
Photo via iStock

Legislators overwhelmingly voted to put the $15 billion state school bond on the March ballot. But a Public Policy Institute of California poll shows voters are not enthusiastic about what will be the largest single bond in California history, CalMatters’ Ricardo Cano reports.

The findings: 

  • 48% of likely voters support what will be Proposition 13, which would fund construction of public schools, community colleges and University of California and California State University campuses.
  • 36% of likely voters oppose it.
  • 71% of Democrats, 44% of independents and 24% of Republicans support it.

Democratic Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell of Long Beach, co-author of Proposition 13: 

  • “I am confident that voters will support Proposition 13 once they learn that funds will be provided to ensure our schools are safe, such as eliminating mold and asbestos in our classrooms.”

NYT’s Manjoo does ‘Gimme Shelter’

Flames from Sylmar in October (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

When wildfires and blackouts left vast swaths of the state without electricity and breathable air last month, numerous national media outlets declared California unlivable. 

The hyperbole was as familiar to longtime Californians as Thanksgiving visits from out-of-state relatives who play a passive aggressive game of California bingo: 

  • Don’t you miss seasons? “B!”
  • Wow, so much traffic, “I!” 
  • Good lord, the sales tax here, “BINGO!”

But for some native Californians, including New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, this time does feel different. He wrote last month

  • “I’m starting to suspect we’re over. It’s the end of California as we know it. I don’t feel fine.”

On this episode of “Gimme Shelter: The California Housing Crisis Podcast,” CalMatters’ Matt Levin and The L.A. Times’ Liam Dillon interview Manjoo about whether California has reached a true tipping point, and ask the question: Why the state can’t fix some of its fundamental flaws.

Commentary at CalMatters

Sam Liccardo, San Jose mayor: Pacific Gas & Electric should be run like other customer-owned businesses—such as credit unions, or mutual insurance corporations—with management responsive to markets, and responsible to customers.  It’s hardly a novel concept. More than 900 utility “cooperatives”—including a couple with billions in revenues—currently serve 19 million customers in the U.S.

Dan Walters, CalMatters: Sacramento’s school system has emerged as an example of  mismanagement that shows no indication of changing.

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