by Ellen Isaacs
The surge of wild fires in the state of California — the ravages of climate change, the greed and incompetence of utility companies, the corruption of politicians, the ongoing power shutoffs, the suffering of millions of workers who lose power, money, food, health and safety – no tale better illustrates the death-dealing heartlessness and dysfunctionality of capitalism, even in one of its most “progressive” outposts.
Climate Disaster Looms
Climate change is only worsening as the energy industry continues to produce fossil fuels for profit, and other industries, especially the military and transportation, continue to rely on them. Since the 1880s, average global temperatures have risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, but nearly 3 degrees in California, and the rate has accelerated since the 1980s(1). In California, there are now more than twice as many dry, warm, windy days as before 1980, which account for more than half of all the acres burned. This could increase by over 78% by 2050 without aggressive greenhouse gas reduction(2).
A Criminally Negligent Power Industry
A major factor in lighting up this tinderbox is the malfeasance of California’s five utility companies, whose equipment is above ground, aging, and poorly maintained. Half of the most destructive fires in California history are attributable to power lines, according to the California Pacific Utilities Commission (CPUC)(3). The worst fire in 100 years, the Camp Fire in Paradise in November, 2018, was started by a worn hook on a transmission tower that was 97 years old and in need of replacement for decades. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the main northern California provider, was found responsible for over 1500 fires from 2014-17(4).
The economics of utility companies’ behavior is so corrupt (read capitalist) that it is almost hard to believe. Their profits do not come from the gas, electricity, or water that they sell to consumers, or from maintaining equipment but only from investment in building more assets, the equipment that is used to provide the service. That is, the more power stations, transmission lines or pipes that they build, the more profits they make. Moreover, as “regulated monopolies,” they are guaranteed a “reasonable profit” of over 10%. Thus they can pay above average dividends to their investors with low risk, and there is little incentive to improve efficiency or maintenance. Third parties that promote safer power sources such as solar, wind or batteries are a competitive threat(5). Other factors that have increased fires are the buildup of vegetation, which burns very easily due to the criminalization of controlled burning and inadequate funding for its removal(2).
Not only do the utility companies cause many deaths and fires, but they are protected from the consequences. PG&E was on criminal probation for a natural gas explosion in 2010 that killed eight people when they pleaded guilty in 2020 to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the Camp Fire and had to pay out $4 million in damages. In September, 2017, however, the California Legislature had passed a law to allow utilities to recoup fire liability costs by raising their rates, now among the highest in the country. In January 2019, PG&E received bankruptcy protection as it faced billions in wildfire liability costs from fires in 2017-18(6). $246 million that was budgeted for moving power lines underground after 2017 was not spent while more than $100 million was paid into executive bonuses(4). During 2019, PG&E hardened only 171 miles of power lines(6). Nonetheless, that year the CPUC granted the utilities a guaranteed profit of over 10%, lower than what they had sought (LA Times, 4/5/19). Soon after the Zogg fire of October, 2020 that killed four people, PG&E received a safety certificate from the CPUC which lowered the burden of proof test to recover costs from the State’s wildfire insurance fund(7). Perhaps its not surprising that during his 2018 campaign for Governor, liberal Democrat Gavin Newsom took $208,400 in contributions from PG&E(8).
Not having been required to repair and make safe their equipment, since 2012 the utility companies have been allowed to cut off power during wind events in order to prevent fires from being sparked(6). During October 2019 alone, PG&E cut power to 738,000 households, leaving over two million people powerless, some without warning(4). In October, 2020 there were seven such cutoffs, most lasting two to three days(3). Only since 2020 have the utilities been required to plan for underground lines and report how many of its customers required emergency backup for medical equipment, the Medical Baseline (MB) program, which requires customers to opt in and renew every year. In 2019, PG&E did install four diesel powered microgrids in downtown areas to power critical infrastructure, but equity and medical need assessments were not done. Legislation was introduced in 2020 that would require mobile phone companies to provide backup to cell towers and require reports on the condition of power equipment(6).
As would be expected, those who have suffered the most from fires and power outages are the poor and black and Latin Californians. The state has relied on prisoners to fight fires, sometimes over 2000, who earn from $2.90 to $5.12 a day as they work alongside regular firefighters who earn an average annual wage of $91,000. It is reminiscent of the practice of Southern prisons renting out agricultural black labor at cheap rates. Like them, today’s prisoner workers have no union, workers’ compensation or much ability to recover damages in court(9). At least they did gain the right to apply for work as firefighters upon release, although they must compete with civilian applicants.
Those most direly affected by the fires are also the poor. The majority of victims in three poor counties around the Paradise Fire, where the poverty rate was from 18-25%, had no insurance. Some got immediate help from the Red Cross and a FEMA trailer for 18 months, but many were never able to replace jobs, housing or their possessions(10). Farm workers, nearly all Latin, have been forced to keep working as smoke filled the air overhead. Only last year were masks mandated during poor air quality, but masks are little protection in this situation and are not readily available(11).
The frequent safety power shutdowns in the last several years also disproportionately affect the poor, who more often suffer food loss. In October, 2019 the CalMatters organization found that over a third of residents where lights went out in nine counties Northern California lived in poverty. The elderly and disabled suffered the most(12). Virtual schooling during the pandemic has made the situation very dire, with 4800 students in Santa Rosa unable to participate in school in September, 2020 alone(13).
These same power companies that periodically shut off power during high winds also cut off many customers who fall behind in their payments. In 2016, four companies cut off 885,000 households, all of which were poor and two thirds of which were black or Latin(14). Now that many workers are forced to work from home, even though they are generally better off, they must invest in generators with enough capacity to allow parents to work and children to do virtual schooling.
Strangely Enough, Fire is Not Good for the Health
Smoke from wildfires, in which over 400 toxins have been identified, is breathed right into the lungs and is absorbed into the blood. These toxins can activate the immune system and affect platelets and the lining of blood vessels, even after only a few days of exposure. The inflammation can induce clots that may cause heart attacks or strokes, especially in those over 65. Irritation of the lungs also causes worsening of asthma. Studies of air pollution have shown that long-term exposure to small particles called PM2.5 is associated with a shorter life expectancy, but little is known about the long-term effects of wildfires on health. The immune effects may interfere with the body’s ability to fight off Covid-19(15).
The poisoning of drinking water is another problem, and contamination has been documented after many fires. Burned plastic piping releases benzene and other chemicals, and these chemicals can also be sucked up into pipe linings after depressurization to fight fires. Benzene not only causes leukemia, but causes immediate gastrointestinal symptoms. In Santa Rosa, benzene and other contaminants were found to be at 40,000 times the safe level. Fires also cause erosion and increased sediment flowing into reservoirs and lakes since two-thirds of California’s water flows from forests at risk of burning. This sediment could clog a third of the West’s watersheds by 2050, as well as widely introducing contaminants (16).
Money Protecting Money
All in all, we have here the perfect capitalist storm, lodged in the so-called most progressive state. Greed for profit and an inability to plan beyond each quarter’s earnings insure that climate change will not be tackled in a meaningful way. Cutbacks in government funds minimize even fire mitigation efforts like underbrush control. Although guilty of causing many destructive fires and deaths, the utility companies have their profits protected and are not required to maintain their equipment or build underground. They are shielded by bankruptcy laws and liability limitations passed by corrupt politicians who accept their contributions. Meanwhile, people lose their lives, their housing, and their livelihoods. The poor, disproportionately non-white, are often not able to recover and become homeless, jobless and destitute. Continuous power interruptions, the main way the state has undertaken to “protect” from fires, continue to cause widespread and inequitable loss of income and education. Mostly black and Latin prisoners and farm workers are pressured to work in hazardous conditions for very low pay. Millions, now and in the future, face risks to their health. Somehow, this system must have been designed and kept in place by the wealthy few.
A Better Way is Possible
Under a society run without the profit motive and without racism, attacking climate change and environmental fire hazards would be a priority. An immediate imperative would be to build the power grid underground where indicated and repair and maintain all equipment. Forests would be made as fuel safe as possible by controlled burns and other methods and vegetation around power lines cleared. All workers would have sturdy housing located in as safe an area as possible and any damage that does stem from environmental events would be remedied. Utilities would not be run to make money but to provide the safest and most efficient power that is needed, along with the development of clean energy. No workers would be required to work in hazardous conditions when avoidable and any hazardous work would receive maximal protection and ample reward. Clean water and an environment free from dangerous contaminants would be a priority. It is not possible to even contemplate such remedies under capitalism.