Power and shared wealth

PG&E's far-reaching influence even links it to San Bruno explosion investigators

Last year's deadly PG&E pipeline explosion is still under investigation.


In the 1930s, political cartoonists often portrayed California's monolithic Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as a giant octopus, its tentacles extending into every sphere of civic life. If money buys influence, the cephalopod analogy may still be apt today when considering the company's tally of corporate giving, part of a detailed filing with the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E's largesse, measured in thousands of dollars in donations, spills into a broad array of nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, chambers of commerce, and volunteer-led efforts throughout the state. PG&E's corporate giving is so broad that it even extends to several organizations affiliated with appointees to the Independent Review Panel convened by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to investigate PG&E's deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

While the utility undoubtedly advances worthy causes with its myriad donations to youth groups, cultural centers, organizations fighting AIDS and cancer, arts councils, environmental groups, and other charitable entities, corporate contributions always reflect a calculated decision, notes Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies.

"They're a big company, and they're trying to, shall we say, ingratiate themselves with a wide swath of community interests, including nonprofit groups," Stern told us. "The cigarette companies did that all the time, and it was very effective ... because nonprofits then laid off on ballot measures, for example, or they would oppose ballot measures that would increase cigarette taxes. My bottom line is, businesses don't just spend money gratuitously. There is a business reason a business spends money — campaign contributions or donations. And they have to justify that to their shareholders."

In mid-October 2010, CPUC president Michael Peevey announced his selection of five expert panelists for the newly created advisory body on the San Bruno explosion. In an official filing, Peevey ordered PG&E to fund the panel, which would be tasked with gathering facts and making recommendations to the CPUC "as to whether there is a need for the general improvement of the safety of PG&E's natural gas transmission lines, and if so, how these improvements should be made." A report on the panel's initial findings is expected in the coming weeks. The effort is on a parallel track with the federal investigation now underway at the National Transportation Safety Board.

The appointees bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table. Panelist Karl Pister, for example, chairs the board of the California Council on Science and Technology, served as chancellor at UC Santa Cruz, and has taught civil engineering. Jan Schori has an insider's understanding of how an energy company is run thanks to her past experience as CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD).

Yet some of Peevey's appointees to the Independent Review Panel have ties to PG&E. Panelist Paula Rosput Reynolds formerly held positions at the investor-owned utility, according to her bio, including serving as an executive of the PG&E's interstate natural gas pipeline subsidiary. An understanding of the company's inner workings could be considered an asset, but it also raises questions about her independence.