Friday, September 11, 2009
The California Public Utilities Commission rejected SDG&E's controversial proposal to shut off power to rural areas of the county during times of high fire risk. What's the next step for SDG&E?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): Well, first we heard that approval of SDG&E's power plan by the PUC may not be a done deal. And then yesterday the PUC—this is the Public Utilities Commission for the State of California—the PUC rejected the controversial proposal to cut power to the county's rural backcountry during fire season. So, first of all, JW, were you surprised by the rejection?
JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Yes, I was. I thought the – Sempra has, you know, a boatload of lobbyists and they know how to play the game. They're one of the best in the business and the – this is a big upset. This is a big upset.
PENNER: But I want to read the response to media inquiries that came from SDG&E's president and CEO. This is part of it. She says, 'while we are disappointed in today's ruling on the shutoff component of our overall community fire safety program, it's important to point out that the CPUC, California Public Utilities Commission, reaffirmed SDG&E's statutory authority and responsibility to operate our system safely.' Now that may be another way of saying – what she's talking about is that the commission said the company has the power to turn off power if public safety is at stake, such as winds stronger than what power poles can withstand. So I'm just wondering what their decision really meant.
AUGUST: Well, it does leave the door open for SDG&E. And -- But, you know, you'd have to say that to a utility. You can't say to them, well, you can't do anything in the case of a catastrophe, you can't cut power. They have to have that option. But it is the fact that it left the door open. The beauty of this for SDG&E is they went after – they wanted to create this because they wanted to reduce their liability for fires. They got nailed because of the last fire, the Witch Fire caused by the downed power lines. So if they had the ability to cut off the power, they reduce their liability and damn the people in the east county, they didn't really care. But the point is, because of the ruling by the PUC, I have a feeling that if this thing goes – if we have another incident like this, PU – the SDG&E can say, hey, well, the PUC said we couldn't do anything. We couldn't cut the power. We're not responsible, if it ever happened again, if it ever occurred again.
PENNER: Well, there were people for this and there were people against it. San Diego City Council voted in behalf of – or several members of the city council, anyway, I think most of them…
PENNER: …voted in behalf of supporting SDG&E on cutting off the power. Many of the supervisors, especially those like Dianne Jacob, representing the east county, the back countries, voted against it. At this point, I want to ask our listeners whether you were in favor of cutting off power to backcountry or whether you were opposed to it. You've now heard the ruling by the PUC. Are you pleased with it? Do you think that this is definitive and do you feel that the people in the backcountry now will be able to use their water pumps and open their garage doors and all the stuff they were complaining about? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Let me ask you about that, John. Do you think that SDG&E was prepared to be turned down?
JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): I think SDG&E thought they would prevail just as the Coastal Commission did a few weeks ago.
WARREN: And I see a signal there in terms of how San Diego is being treated. But what's more important here is this, the statement, that came out. The PUC had to take the position as a matter of public policy. It's responsible for public safety so it has to take the position, no, we will not allow this because lives are at stake. People are on life support and different kinds of equipment. And it was a very weak case, as one of the commissioners pointed out, for SDG&E to say, well, look, we'll provide for those people back there. How do you know? I mean, is it every day a person comes home on life support that they have to register with SDG&E and get into the system? No. The water that you mentioned, the whole quality of life is tied into this thing. But the way the language was written, saying that you have the authority, in effect saying in a backdoor fashion, if you cut off the power, you have the authority, then those who object to the cutoff can then go into court and seek an injunction and you can get the same result that you wanted and we can be safe as the Public Utilities Commission. And those who are arguing will have to fight for the difference, and maybe by that time the crisis will be over. So that's what they set the stage for.
PENNER: But one of the criticisms, David, was that the utility never sat down with the other agencies that would be affected, like the water companies and the communication companies, like the cable companies, even some of the fire departments, and iron out a plan that would be reasonable for all these services. Is this just the modus operandi for SDG&E or do you just have to do these things unilaterally?
DAVID OGUL (Education Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, I think the – really what it boiled down to, regardless of how you felt on this issue, is that the SDG&E did not do a good job. In fact, they failed at their trying to convince the PUC that this would, in fact – this plan would, in fact, prevent any fires. Had this plan been a factor in the 2000 and (sic) fires, it would not made a difference (sic). The fires began before the thresholds laid under this proposal would have gone into effect. And, really, that's, to me, I don't – It's always dangerous to try to figure out what other people are thinking when they make a decision but, to me, that – it was not a surprise. The – SDG&E failed to convince – convince me that this plan would be effective.
PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727. We're talking about yesterday's decision by the California Public Utilities Commission to reject, and I use that word kind of strongly, but to appear to reject SDG&E's desire to cut off power to the backcountry when fire threat is high. 1-888-895-KPBS. Linda in Ramona…
PENNER: …is with us now. Linda, you're on with the editors.
LINDA (Caller, Ramona): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
LINDA: I'm one of the people that would've lost power thanks to San Diego Gas & Electric, and thanks to the PUC, I won't be losing power. One part of the decision is that San Diego Gas & Electric, in requesting to modify Tariff Rule 14, wanted to eliminate any liability for any damages that would've occurred while people had their power shut off. In other words, if you died because you couldn't evacuate, you couldn't, you know, pump your water, they wanted to have absolutely no liability. If they do now shut off power, they will be subject to full liability. I mean, obviously, it's going to take a court case but by rejecting their request, the PUC has now put the liability back on San Diego Gas & Electric for any damages that might occur when they shut the power off.
PENNER: Okay, well, thank you for that. JW, you wanted to say something to that effect?
AUGUST: Well, I actually did a John Warren, and I read the paperwork. The decision, the ultimate proposed decision—and, hey folks, if you can get it, read it because it really lays out quite clearly why the PUC – if they had decided to allow the cutoffs, they would be – I think they would be insane because if you go through the paperwork and you see the arguments against it, it's quite clear it would've been a bad choice. But, you know what really bothering (sic) about this whole thing is the fact that the people – I live in the City of San Diego, I lived through these fires, but I was embarrassed that our city council supported this. I was embarrassed that San Diego Firefighters supported this because if they'd have read about this and what it meant to the people out in the backcountry, I don't see how they could, in clear conscience, support the ability for SDG&E to shut down the power. It – I'm really disappointed that we would be so small minded in this community that we'd be only listening – only concerned with our immediate needs and concerns that – Nobody wants to see the fires coming over the mountains. Nobody in the City of San Diego wants to see that. But if you had read this report and you'd have seen – this wouldn't have – This wouldn't stop it. This wouldn't mean a bit of difference, and all it would've done was hurt the people out there in the east county.
PENNER: Where can they find that report?
AUGUST: It's online, the PUC website.
AUGUST: It's really, really interesting.
PENNER: Okay, thank you very much, JW. We have a lot of calls on this and many people have comments on it so we're going to get to your comments right after our break. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.
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PENNER: I'm Gloria Penner. This is the Editors Roundtable. And I'm at the roundtable today with David Ogul, who is with the San Diego Union-Tribune, JW August, who is with KGTV 10News, and John Warren with San Diego Voice and Viewpoint, and you. And we're talking about the PUC's decision to reject SDG&E's request that they cut off power to the backcountry, the rural areas, in case of a severe fire threat. It's been rejected and we've been sort of analyzing whether it's really rejected or not and whether it's a good thing. So I'm going to take your calls because there are lots of good calls here and we're very interested in your opinions as well as the opinions of our editors. Arlene in Mission Hills. Arlene, welcome to the Editors Roundtable.
ARLENE (Caller, Mission Hills): Thank you, Gloria. I – We have lived here since 1960 and there was a major fire in the backcountry in 1970, I believe it was, certainly the early seventies. And at that time it was deemed to have been caused by SDG&E power lines coming down. So they have had legal and moral foreseeability for decades. And there is no excuse for them not to have dealt with this in another fashion. And all of a sudden I saw on Channel 10 television, I think it was, last night, they're putting in steel poles, they've got these fire suppression units that are going along with the workers. They're going to rent a helicopter. And, you know, there are other ways to deal with this, and they have just chosen to take what would be the simplest, less costly and ask for, you know, release from any liability for it. And I don't think they deserve it because they haven't dealt with it for all these decades.
PENNER: Well, it's interesting. As part of that statement that I read earlier, Ms. Reed says, 'our goal always has been to reduce the potential for any more catastrophic fires in our region.' Any more catastrophic fires, so I guess that's an acknowledgement we have had catastrophic fires. JW August.
AUGUST: And the fact of the matter is, they did not spend their money on the infrastructure and harden the resources. It's like when we gave them money to bury lines in the city, millions and millions of dollars, you know, how much of that actually got done? Very little. Sempra makes a lot of money. Their top execs are rolling in the dough. I mean, they ride in chauffeured limousines, they have private dining rooms. That's fine, they're a corporation, they've got to make a buck, but they also have a responsibility to make sure the infrastructure is safe and not susceptible to this kind of catastrophic happening.
PENNER: Okay. Thank you very much, JW, and thank you as well, Arlene. Good to hear from you. We'll have time for one more call. Let's hear from Shane in San Diego. Shane, you're on with the editors.
SHANE (Caller, San Diego): One simple question.
SHANE: Are the firefighters for this plan, are they small minded, too?
PENNER: Are the firefighters for SDG&E's plan?
SHANE: Are they small minded?
SHANE: I heard that description for those who are for this plan.
WARREN: No, I don't think anyone has ever thought the firefighters were small minded. They expect firefighters to look for ways to help prevent and put out fires, and so firefighters could not argue with the shutdown, would certainly prevent the possibility of fires. Everyone respects their decision but, ultimately, it wasn't their decision and that's why the line is drawn between the idea of the shutdown, and you don't hear people condemning the firefighters for being in support of it.
PENNER: Okay, David, I'm going to finish up with you. Does the PUC, as far as you know, have the final say on whether SDG&E can cut off its power or not? Or is it really up to SDG&E?
OGUL: The PUC, in my reading of what occurred yesterday, is that the final decision is with SDG&E. The PUC was ambiguous in its decision so…
PENNER: So – so we…
OGUL: It's up to SDG&E.
PENNER: Okay, so, you know, we still have the power of the utility company, and I use that word with several meanings. I thank you very much, gentlemen, let us move on.
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