The California Public Utilities Commission unveiled new rules this week — reacting to lessons of the 2007 wildfires to toughen regulations that hopefully will prevent power lines from starting fires in the future. The rules are welcome, since otherwise SDG&E was under absolutely no obligation to change its practices — the practices that started the Witch Creek fire.
Arcing power lines, buffeted by Santa Ana winds, were blamed by investigators for the Oct. 21, 2007, Witch Creek fire. Ignited near Santa Ysabel, that fire eventually merged with the Guejito fire, which had begun early Oct. 22 in the San Pasqual Valley and quickly burned into Rancho Bernardo. More than 1,600 structures were lost in the fires.
Power lines were also blamed for the Rice Canyon fire that burned hundreds of homes in Fallbrook later that week and, farther from San Diego, the Malibu Canyon fire.
Two state investigations concluded that SDG&E equipment, and to a lesser degree Cox Communications, caused the Witch Creek/Guejito fire and the Rice Canyon fire.
There are still hundreds of 2007 fire victims waiting to get their settlement, and that it’s taken four and a half years to address the practices that caused the devastation is amazing. The City of San Diego is among those still waiting for its settlement. If your home was destroyed by the fire, the ship has long since sailed on getting a settlement in a timely manner, but if and when SDG&E finally finishes this process depends in part on the huge rate hike it’s seeking.
The relationship is so tight between SDG&E and its regulatory agency that it’s the SDG&E press shop that gives statements to the media defending the independence of the CPUC, the absurd irony of which remains stunning.
So it’s against this backdrop that SDG&E seeks upwards of a billion dollars in rate hikes — hikes to pass on the cost of fire damage to customers and undermine the growing solar industry. It’s perhaps worth remembering as they ask for a billion dollar handout from the general public that, not only was SDG&E was responsible for devastation that has still not been remedied five years later, but that its parent company Sempra doubled its profits in the third quarter of 2011 and announced last month that it will significantly exceed its annual profit projections.
Of course, if SDG&E doesn’t get the rate hike that allows the cost of fire settlements to be passed on to the public, it has to pay out of pocket and all those amazing profit figures are going to take a hit. Meaning that the calculation is whether the cost of the fire caused by SDG&E practices should be born by its stock price on Wall Street or by San Diegans who had to wait four and a half years to get a ruling that amounts to ‘we’ll try not to do it again.’
An easy choice for the corporation, which succeeds by protecting profits. But the public interest? That might be a little different.