Embattled California utility spent most for 2018 lobbying

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) – Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Corp spent nearly USD10 million on California lobbying efforts in the year before the utility giant declared bankruptcy, spending more than any other entity seeking to influence California government in 2018.

The majority of that money – more than USD5 million – was spent for lobbying on proposals involving wildfire safety and response, including whether to reduce the strict liability utilities face when their equipment sparks wildfires.

Lawmakers ultimately didn’t reduce the liability but passed a law making it easier for utilities to take out bonds to cover wildfire damages and pass some costs on to ratepayers.

“The actions we take are really on behalf of our customers and employees,” PG&E Corp spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said about the spending on lobbying. The money comes from shareholders, not ratepayers, she said.

PG&E Corp, the nation’s largest utility, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Tuesday as it faces potentially tens of billions of dollars in liability from devastating wildfires that ripped through Northern California in 2017 and 2018. The bankruptcy filing could lead to smaller payouts to wildfire victims and increased costs for PG&E Corp customers.

A man walks past a Pacific Gas & Electric Corp entrance in Daly City, California. – AP

Paulo said worsening wildfires are the biggest issue facing PG&E and one of the most critical in California.

Katie Phillips, a spokeswoman for California Common Cause, a non-profit that advocates against money in politics, said the amount the utility spent is “shocking”.

“It’s a demonstration that people are just trying to buy influence in Sacramento,” she said. “It’s really disheartening to see that they were throwing money around when people’s homes and lives were at stake.”

The utility disclosed its most recent lobbying numbers in a Thursday filing with the California secretary of state.

Of the nearly USD10 million spent, about USD9.6 million went toward general lobbying, which includes things such as hiring in-house lobbyists or major Sacramento firms to advocate on behalf of legislation as well as paying for meals or other perks for state lawmakers.

Between July and September the company spent USD6 million lobbying, including buying meals and event tickets for a handful of public employees and giving more than USD10,000 in campaign contributions to nine sitting lawmakers and one candidate.

The utility also spent about USD350,000 lobbying the California Public Utilities Commission, the entity that regulates it and other utilities.

PG&E Corp is facing 750 lawsuits, its lawyer said in a Thursday court hearing.

Investigators still haven’t determined the cause of the massive November fire that killed at least 86 people while devastating the town of Paradise.

However, PG&E Corp reported problems with their equipment near the site where the fire started.

Among California’s other major utilities, Sempra, which owns San Diego Gas & Electric, spent about USD1.4 million lobbying lawmakers in 2018 and another USD167,000 lobbying the public utilities commission.