Environmental, Energy Policies Blamed for California Wildfires, Power Outages

Published November 26, 2019

As frustration grows over widespread wildfires and power outages in California, longstanding environmental and energy policies are increasingly being blamed for the ongoing devastation.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the state’s largest utility, has resorted to rolling blackouts throughout much of its service area to contain the blazes. Up to two million people were left in the dark for several days in October from the Bay Area to the Oregon border.

The periodic cutoffs, which PG&E has said could go on for another ten years, are the company’s way of dealing with gusty winds—Diablo in the north, and Santa Ana in the south—that blow over high-tension power lines and create hazards that, along with transformer malfunctions, can spark wildfires. These fires spread rapidly over dry grasses and can quickly engulf homes and businesses in rural and suburban areas.

PG&E is to blame for the blackouts and wildfires, says Gov. Gavin Newsom, claiming the utility failed to maintain and improve its power lines in its service area.

“This is not, from my perspective, a climate change story as much as it is a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades,” Newsom said at an October 22 news conference. “It’s [about] neglect and a desire to protect not public safety but profits.”

Power Off, Air Pollution Up

Facing as much as $30 billion in legal claims, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, after its power lines were found to have ignited wildfires in 2017 and 2018. The company’s electrical system was blamed for the gigantic Camp Fire that engulfed Paradise, California and killed 85 people and destroyed 95 percent of the town.

Prior to and during the current round of wildfires, PG&E’s decision to cut off power to areas at high risk of wildfire has resulted in many people in those areas resorting to backup fossil-fuel-powered generators to provide electricity for their homes and businesses.

In addition to being an unnecessary expense, the diesel, gasoline, and propone burned in those generators increase emissions of regulated air pollutants in a region that already has among the worst air quality in the nation.

Consequences of REM

California’s Renewable Energy Mandate (REM) requires utilities to use among the highest amounts of renewable power in the nation. State utilities are required to derive 33 percent of their power from high-cost renewables, primarily wind and solar, by 2020, 50 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2045.

The policy has forced PG&E and other utilities to divert millions of dollars each year away from upgrading deteriorating equipment and clearing brush and trees near exposed powerlines, to spend on reducing the cost of green energy to low-income customers.

In 2018, PG&E spent $509 million on electric power discounts for low-income ratepayers in addition to $125 million on no-cost weatherization and efficiency upgrades in low-income communities. To meet state government demands, PG&E is also spending $130 million over three years to install 7,500 electric car charging stations around the state and offers drivers an $800 “clean fuel” rebate.

California’s REM has forced PG&E and other utilities to waste resources that could have otherwise been dedicated to maintaining essential infrastructure, says Paul Driessen, a senior policy analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT).

“In 2012, PG&E asked the California Public Utilities Commission for a rate increase of $4.8 billion to ensure sufficient cash to fix its antiquated transmission system and remove dangerous fuel buildup,” said Driessen. “But the PUC allowed only $2.4 billion, and upgrades were put off while the company squandered millions on state-mandated green energy.”

In 2017 alone, PG&E spent 60 percent more buying renewable power than on upgrading infrastructure, California state Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Nicolaus) has pointed out in interviews. As a result, Gallagher is among a group of legislators calling for California to suspend its renewable portfolio mandate.

Malign Neglect

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) has written and testified repeatedly over the years that decades of flawed environmental policies, repeated lawsuits, and mismanagement on state and federal forests have left the land littered with millions of dead and dying trees ready to erupt in flames.

“Excess timber comes out of the forest one way or the other: it is either carried out or it burns out,” wrote McClintock on his website. “[B]eginning in the 1970s, Congress began enacting laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, [resulting in] once healthy and well maintained federal forests consigned to a policy of benign neglect, … placing increasing tracts of land off limits to forest management, allowing our forests to become dangerously overcrowded and overgrown.

“The Sierra now has four times the timber density that the acreage can support,” wrote McClintock. “In this overcrowded and stressed condition, our trees become susceptible to drought, pestilence, disease, and ultimately, catastrophic wildfire. Ironically, the endangered species in whose name we have imposed these misguided policies are even bigger losers than the human population.”

Forest mismanagement has created tragically damaging wildfires, says Jay Lehr, Ph.D., a senior policy analyst with the International Climate Science Coalition.

“Forest fires are nothing new and, under proper circumstances, can be beneficial,” said Lehr. “But over the past few decades, California’s forests have been horribly mismanaged, adding fuel to every fire by not allowing appropriate logging and the removal of deadwood, due to environmental groups wanting nature left alone.

“The tragic results speak for themselves,” said Lehr.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and a senior policy analyst with CFACT.

Official Connections

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA): http://www.tommcclintock.com/issue-single.php?id=118; http://www.tommcclintock.com/take-action.php

California state Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Nicolaus): https://ad03.asmrc.org/; https://lcmspubcontact.lc.ca.gov/PublicLCMS/ContactPopup.php?district=AD03&inframe=Y