The local, state, national power elite is using death and destruction to advance its agenda
Propelled by gale-force winds, the sparks and embers swept rapidly down the hillsides and across the highways a year ago, jumping from ridge to ridge across five counties, setting fire to whole neighborhoods, incinerating more than 5,000 homes and 42 people, one of them a small boy who couldn’t outrun the flames.
Most if not all of the fires that night were ignited by Pacific Gas & Electric. One ran down a densely populated Sonoma County canyon that planners had said should never be developed. As a coastal oak savanna, it had burned some 50 years earlier.
Now, some of the same developers who put homes and people in harm’s way in the 1990s – Gallaher, Christopherson – are rebuilding in the same deadly fire zone. And PG&E executives have successfully lobbied the California legislature for a bailout on paying for the lives and property lost, if it would put the company into bankruptcy.
PG&E, the legislators said, is too big to fail.
Power companies have caused many if not most of the wildfires in California, including the flames that swept across acre after acre this year. Most involve trees falling on power lines, or utility towers crashing in high winds, setting the dry-season woods and fields ablaze.
In 2007, after winds toppled its power lines, causing a major fire, San Diego Electric faced $5.6 billion in claims. It alleged that the winds reached 90 mph. The state found it was half that, well below what poles and power lines were legally required to withstand.
For a decade after that fire, the owners of northern California’s PG&E stalled a state effort to simply map out areas where power lines might cause fires. Just days before last year’s deadly flames, they won yet another delay.
PG&E is a “public” utility in name only. It is owned and operated by the capitalist class, the super-rich who work with cold determination to maximize profits for themselves and their stockholders.
PG&E’s governing board is composed of wealthy executives from banking (Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Rothschild), energy (Duke Power, Spectra, Xcel), tech (Dell, Dolby Labs), and airlines (Alaska). In their pictures on the PG&E website, they are all smiling.
The company’s major investors are billionaire-run financial firms like BlackRock, Vanguard, and Lazard, which manage great pools of capital – $6.2 trillion in the case of BlackRock.
They rule with a heavy hand in California, where PG&E wields considerable influence in state and local politics. In Sonoma County alone, PG&E puts serious money into electing its candidates, including the current chairman of the board of supervisors, James Gore.
PG&E is past president of the Sonoma County Alliance, the county’s effective chamber of commerce. It’s on the board of the North Bay Leadership Council, business’s instrument for influencing politics in half a dozen counties.
Sonoma wheeler-dealer Darius Anderson put PG&E’s government affairs officer on the board of his Rebuild Northbay Foundation, the power elite’s attempt to build a classic “disaster capitalist” apparatus to advance its local agenda – wine, tourism, and luxury housing.
PG&E hired Anderson’s lobbying firm to get its bailout bill passed in Sacramento. The North Bay’s state senator, Bill Dodd, whose campaign funders included PG&E, saw the bill through the legislature.
Meanwhile, insurance companies are paying burned-out folks less than two-thirds the cost of rebuilding. Many have moved out of state. Burned-out renters are doubled up or living in their cars. And it will take 10 years to rebuild.
What are the lessons from this man-made disaster? The super-rich are clear about their common interests, and they are well organized, right down to the city and county level. If the rest of us – the great mass of humanity – are going to survive and prosper, we will have to organize, too, and take power.