PG&E protest boots

At an early morning protest outside PG&E’s annual shareholder meeting Friday, there were signs and crowds, but little shouting and chanting. Instead, the mood was somber as activists laid out pairs of shoes for each person who had been killed by the Camp Fire, 85 pairs in all. As they read the names of the deceased, they planted a flower in each pair. According to Cal Fire, PG&E’s electrical transmission lines caused the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.

The message of the protest focused on turning PG&E, which is a private, for-profit corporation, into a publicly owned utility, and on preventing what protestors called a “bailout” of the company, which filed for bankruptcy in January.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents the Mission, said the company’s bankruptcy provided an opportunity for San Francisco to create a public electricity utility in the city. “I urge the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to explore the possibility of purchasing PG&E’s transmission and distribution assets serving our city,” Wiener said in a statement responding to the bankruptcy announcement.

Last month, the commission presented its preliminary study to Mayor London Breed, finding that “Public ownership of San Francisco’s electric grid has the potential for significant long-term benefits.” The commission is now conducting a more detailed analysis.

Former Richmond Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles joined the protest, drawing a comparison between her fights with Chevron, which operates a refinery in Richmond, and the state’s fight with PG&E. “They believe they are too big, too powerful, and too wealthy to be told what to do,” said Beckles, referring to PG&E. “We can move to a different model that can be public.”

Shareholders shuffled past the protest on their way into PG&E headquarters at 77 Beale St., protected by blue barriers and police officers.

The company has faced intense criticism in recent years, after its equipment was found to have caused deadly wildfires in 2015, 2017, and 2018. The day after PG&E declared bankruptcy this past January, a federal judge in San Francisco found that the company’s involvement in the wildfires had violated its felony probation stemming from a 2010 gas line explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno. “There’s a very clear-cut pattern here,” said the judge, William Alsup. “PG&E is starting these fires.”

On Tuesday, the company agreed to pay $1 billion to local governments in Northern California for damage caused by the fires, an agreement which is awaiting approval in bankruptcy court. The company will also create a $105 million housing assistance fund for people displaced by the 2017 and 2018 wildfires.

Environmental groups, youth groups, and socialist groups participated in today’s demonstration. Participants set up makeshift tents around the pairs of shoes to represent the thousands of families who have been displaced by the fires.

Inside the meeting, PG&E shareholders voted on a new CEO and more than a dozen directors, and held a non-binding vote on executive compensation, among other matters. Last year, three people shared top executive duties at PG&E and made on average about $9.3 million on an annualized basis, according to the company’s joint proxy statement.

PG&E’s stock has dropped from a high of around $70 per share before the 2017 Northern California wildfires to a low of less than $7 per share as the 2018 Camp Fire burned. Since the company’s bankruptcy announcement, its stocks have rebounded somewhat. Yesterday, after Bloomberg reported that Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to create a “liquidity fund” to help utilities pay for costs associated with the 2018 wildfires that would be financed in part by $10 billion in Department of Water Resources bonds, the company’s stock jumped again.

According to documents filed with the SEC Thursday, the company plans to spend about $11 million on bonuses for top executives excluding the CEO this year, based on a mix of safety metrics and the company’s stock price.

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