“Why the hell do we still have overhead wires in fire-prone areas?” - Gov. Gavin Newsom

Here is an easy quiz about starting fires from power lines strung up on towers, in comparison with undergrounding those lines.

(1) Which is more likely to break in the wind? In an ice-storm?

(2) Which is more likely to be severed by a falling or flying tree limb?

(3) Which is more likely to be struck and damaged by lightning?

(4) Which is more likely to present a target for deliberate sabotage?

If you answered all questions with “Obviously, power lines strung up on towers,” most all reasonable people would certainly agree with you. But not the most important people. An official of the California Public Utilities Commission wrote, in reference to undergrounding power lines for a local project here in Mount Shasta, “... there is no evidence to support that doing so would result in a safer system.”

The official, Robert Haga, was responding to many dozens of local residents who specifically asked at a public hearing in 2018 (and in follow-up letters) that a replacement power line (from the Lassen Substation on South Old Stage Road to the yet-to-open Crystal Geyser Plant on Ski Village Drive) be undergrounded rather than strung up on new tall towers.

This CPUC opinion gives the green light to the tower project, and rejects undergrounding. But it is surprising, even by the CPUC’s generally pro-utility company standards. According to CPUC’s own website map, the proposed power line runs right through the middle of a “Tier-3” fire threat area. According to the CPUC: “Tier 3 fire-threat areas depict areas where there is an extreme risk (including likelihood and potential impacts on people and property) from utility associated wildfires.”

In view of the recent disastrous wildfires in Northern California, some of which were caused by, or complicated by, power utility problems, one would think that the CPUC would be especially sensitive to reducing wildfire threat. This sensitivity would be prudent, not just to protect people and property, but to avoid liability in the face of explicit warnings from the public.

However, the CPUC has not been prudent, choosing instead to bow to the wishes of the industry they are supposed to regulate. According to industry statements, undergrounding costs two to three times as much as a new tower system over the same distance. By itself, that does not mean it is unaffordable, especially considering the “cost” of burning a whole city down, not to mention the consequent suffering and death. That cost has now bankrupted PG&E, whose faulty overhead power lines annihilated Paradise, Calif. Pacific Power is no small player either: it is owned by Berkshire Hathaway (billionaire Warren Buffet, chairman and chief executive).

Among its major holdings throughout the economy, it is currently the largest shareholder in United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, and a top three shareholder in Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. It can easily afford to have its subsidiary Pacific Power, invest in undergrounding for the protection of the populations it “serves” (and so can the multinational Japanese pharmaceutical company that owns the prime beneficiary of this project, Crystal Geyser). There is even the CPUC’s own Rule 20A program that deposits real money regularly to help counties (including Siskiyou) to pay for utility undergrounding, in trenches perhaps shared by several types of utilities. And stepping back for a bit, it is hard to argue there is a lack of funds for public fire protection (including undergrounding) when moderate-income American people (i.e., most of us) have been forced through our taxes to pay for useless, futile, and counterproductive (not to mention barbaric) military invasions in distant countries ($2 trillion since 2001 in Afghanistan alone), for which the money spigot seems always wide open.

Was “lack of funds” considered when the wealthiest 0.1% was the main lucky recipient of the recent huge federal tax break?

CPUC commissioners are appointed by the governor. Those who are currently serving were appointed by Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom. This does not mean they serve or protect the public interest. As pointed out by the Washington Post (Nov. 11, 2019), “Over the past two decades, Newsom (D) and his wife have accepted more than $700,000 from the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., its foundation and its employees as the utility has supported his political campaigns, his ballot initiatives, his inauguration festivities and his wife’s foundation, including her film projects.” Newsom has appointed a new chair to the CPUC, Marybel Batjer. She was a national security affairs special assistant for President Ronald Reagan and deputy executive secretary for the National Security Council from 1987 to 1989, and an assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense and deputy secretary of defense from 1981 to 1987. One hallmark of Reagan’s domestic and foreign policies was furthering the interests of large corporations around the globe. In her new job at the CPUC, we can only hope that Batjer has re-evaluated her past sympathies in that regard.

But recognizing the fact that large corporations have incredible power over both the economy and the government does not mean that ordinary people cannot take advantage of opportunities and cracks to ensure safety. As a result of the recent extensive PG&E power shutdowns (a tactic that Pacific Power says it might employ here next summer), even Gavin Newsom has declared his outrage. He recently declared, “Years and years of greed, years and years of mismanagement in the utilities ... That greed has precipitated in a lack of intentionality and focus and a hardening our grid, undergrounding their transmission lines. They simply did not do their job.”

So (despite his awkward wording), Newsom himself has come out for undergrounding!

Now is an excellent time for as many of us as possible to directly demand that the governor (at his website https://govapps.gov.ca.gov/gov40mail/) live up to his rhetoric, with letters, emails, phone calls, letters-to-the-editor, twitter, etc. And it is an excellent time to recruit our local and county governments to actively endorse this appeal to the governor and to support undergrounding of the Lassen substation/Crystal Geyser project.