PG&E’s spending on lobbying climbed amid bankruptcy, rate hike requests

As Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s bankruptcy unfolded, the embattled utility increased its lobbying at the California Capitol, expense records filed with the Secretary of State show.

The state’s largest privately owned utility faces billions of dollars in claims from wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

In its latest filing, PG&E reported lobbying on a slew of wildfire and utility-related bills, including Senate Bill 209, which establishes a state-run weather center to help predict wildfire threats. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed that measure and a host of other wildfire-related bills into law last month.

PG&E also reported lobbying on issues related to its Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

It spent more than $1.3 million from July though September. That’s more than twice as much as the utility spent lobbying in the prior six months, bringing its total so far this year to nearly $2.2 million. That’s still far less than last year, when the utility spent nearly $10 million lobbying at the Capitol and at the Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E spokesman James Noonan said part of the increase comes from paying off expenses from earlier months. The utility increased its lobbying at the Public Utilities Commission related to two rate hikes PG&E is pursuing, he said.

One would increase electric bills by an average of $8.73 a month and gas bills by $1.84 a month starting in 2020, if approved in full. PG&E says most of the money would go directly to wildfire safety measures, including installing stronger power poles, insulating power lines and expanding its network of remote weather stations and cameras.

The company is also asking the PUC to add $1.98 each month to electric bills for six years to pay for the decommissioning the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in San Luis Obispo County.

PG&E has been under immense pressure to improve its equipment after the 2017 and and 2018 wildfires and it filed for bankruptcy in January. Newsom has blamed mismanagement at the utility for widespread blackouts that have hamstrung the state during periods of high fire danger.

Last week, Newsom suggested the state could take charge of the utility if it doesn’t emerge from bankruptcy with an adequate reform plan. He also named a top aide his “energy czar” to develop a blueprint for how utilities can address modern challenges including increased fire danger due to climate change.

“The entire system needs to be reimagined,” Newsom said at a press conference last week.

The top lobbying spenders in the Capitol are still oil companies and unions. The Western States Petroleum Association took the top spot, followed by the California Teachers Association, Chevron and the Service Employees International Union.

Dialysis companies also upped their lobbying spending from July through September. DaVita went from the 25th biggest spender for the year to the sixth while Fresenius jumped from 136th to 12th as the companies lobbied against a bill that will cut into their profits.

Both companies deferred comment about the spending jump to Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the Dialysis is Life Support coalition. She said the coalition launched a campaign against the bill, Assembly Bill 290, in August to convince lawmakers it would hurt patients. Newsom signed the measure into law last month.

Sacramento Bee reporter Dale Kasler contributed to this report.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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