Thursday, July 15, 2010

Citizen Darbee: The Pricelessness of Leaderspeak

PG&E Corp CEO and President Peter Darbee, who controls the holding company of Pacific Gas and Electric Company and funded Prop 16 with $70M to blanket California with propaganda in the few months prior to the June 8, 2010 ballot, sought to publish an Op Ed defending his failed constitutional amendment days after the state's voters rejected it by a 4 point spread. The utility executive - one of the highest paid in the world - called his essay “The Price of Leadership.”
I posted a statement on Local Power's victory against Prop 16 on the website but want to focus on the PG&E leader's letter because it indicates how PG&E will be treating San Francisco, Marin, and other communities that implement Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) in Northern California. Darbee started his letter by quoting (former UK Prime Minister) Tony Blair’s statement  “I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honour, but sometimes it is the price of leadership. And the cost of conviction.”

One is tempted to observe that Mr. Blair was at the time of this quote defending his abortive Iraq policy - hardly an encouraging example of leadership. Would Darbee say that Bush paid the price? But it is perhaps wiser to observe the inappropriateness of the utility executive's reference, even as it is naively regurgitated - to simply state that Mr. Darbee is in fact no Prime Minister of England, but the president of an electric utility that is regulated by the state of California and operates upon public rights of way under municipal control, including franchise agreements without which PG&E could not exist.  Yet Mr. Darbee elected to attack the foundational authority of those same democratic governments through a corporate plebiscite - just to block Community Choice Aggregation in its service territory.

More recently, Darbee has come out in opposition to the Valero/Tesoro Initiative, Prop 23, a Prop 16 copycat plebiscite to pre-empt the legislature's landmark greenhouse gas reduction law, AB32. Some fear PG&E will use the campaign to re-green its now tarnished image, but in fact PG&E's carbon strategy is an even greater concern for alarm than its recent attack on local governments.

Again, the undiscussed emergency of not just US but world policy, because of the US, is that PG&E's proposed future, of a nuclear industry revival, is happening under PG&E's global leadership. It so happens that the Bay Area's utility is leading the global nuclear industry revival as part of its promoted carbon policies. As local citizens, the CCA movement and the spotlight of Prop 16 is a rare case where we can do something global by acting locally. The stakes are that high: we should not fear that America's political bottom will fall out (which Prop 16 and Prop 23 represent) but that an historic opportunity is before us; we as San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, the Greater East Bay, and potentially the rest of Northern California now face perhaps the quintessential practical opportunity to prove the nuclear carbon solution globally unnecessary.

Then there are PG&E's long-term allies, particularly the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). When Newsweek and Vanity Fair called PG&E America's greenest large utility after attending NRDC's celebrity party, the "carbon free" (scent of Coca-Cola, includes nuclear) brand is now being sold en masse to millions of Americans, and they are buying it. A lot of Americans now think we have to have nuclear power to solve climate change. But we know this is all about an industry, specifically the mining and fuels industry - and importers like PG&E. Too many Americans are being brainwashed into giving up on the obvious solution the climate crisis (local green power and ubiquitous customer-owned demand technology) just to protect incumbent monopolies and fuel cartels' "revenue requirements." It is a bad situation America is in now because of Obama's obvious waffling with nuclear as well as offshore oil (though I guess he has recanted since the BP catastrophe). It would appear that American big business has evolved into a decadent kind of post-competitive oligarchy.

Either way, such is the simple political crisis that we are solving in the Bay Area not merely as Silicon Valley hard/software geniuses but a coherent, scaled public works project. Hopefully the tens of thousands of citizens who learned about CCA because of Prop 16's propaganda machine will now remember what PG&E really is made of - and perhaps this will strengthen their resolve to try to implement CCA in their rural areas or municipalities - but everyone must recognize that CCA is urgently needed as an example of real change - throughout the world. Many societies fail, and America has so many reasons to fail if in fact the Climate collapses and America loses what power it still has to influence the course of events that will follow.

But the Corporation rises, like the Terminator, for its next new attack. Since losing Prop 16, PG&E's lawyers have gone back to state regulators to undo regulations that prohibit the corporation from lying. Under the recent CPUC decision, PG&E was directly warned not to make false and misleading statements to customers regarding municipal CCA options. PG&E petitioned to change that regulation in its fights against CCAs.

Section 2102 of California's Public Utility Code holds PG&E to the higher standard that “Whenever the commission [CPUC] is of the opinion that any public utility is failing or omitting or about to fail or omit... in violation of law or of any order, decision, rule, direction, or requirement of the commission, it shall direct the attorney of the commission to commence an action or proceeding in the superior court... for the purpose of having such violations or threatened violations stopped and prevented, either by mandamus or injunction.”

PG&E asked regulators to strike its decision prohibiting lying, arguing that it may be regulated only if false and misleading statements are proven in an unfair competition verdict against it after trial in a California Superior Court. In other words, commented the San Diego Reader, “absent a guilty verdict against it under Section 17200 of the Business & Professions Code, PG&E appears to assert that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution gives the corporation the right to say anything it wants.”

In his "price of leadership" letter, Darbee mentions PG&E’s support of “California’s aggressive vehicle emissions standards, opposing efforts by a national business organization to overturn them. He fails to mention that electric cars would have dramatically expanded electricity sales by PG&E, and thus were in self interest (if corporations have selves), not “leadership.”

Darbee rests his case on PG&E’s support of greenhouse gas emissions legislation in California (AB32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 - now under a copycat attack by Valero and Tesoro on the November ballot) -- as well as PG&E’s role as a “major contributor” to the US Climate Action Partnership. He fails to mention that PG&E will profit from the “Cap and Trade” approach that the Partnership promoted. He fails to mention that Cap and Trade used to be a Republican policy – and is widely criticized for benefiting big utilities but not producing results. Darbee fails to mention that PG&E already has a low carbon profile compared to most coal-dependent US utilities, and would bring profit to PG&E if coal utilities had to pay PG&E to clean themselves up – profit, not leadership - while doing little to actually contribute to the solution and much to prevent the solution (Prop 16).  Finally, Darbee fails to mention that PG&E has the advantage of being lower carbon because of its nuclear power plants. Mr Darbee fails to mention that PG&E is among the nation’s most prominent nuclear revival promoters.

Darbee mentions that Newsweek magazine recently called PG&E “the country’s greenest utility.” No mention of the fact that Newsweek (1) sucks and (2) is bankrupt. Kind of like PG&E and fellow traveler? One obsolete monopoly sympathizes with another?”

Darbee mentions “(S)ome of our longtime supporters, who decried Proposition 16, believe the PG&E they once admired lost its way somewhere along the line. I would tell them that their disagreement with us-which we respect-is the price of our leadership on important issues of the day.” Leadership is attacking governments by corporate plebiscite? Leadership and profit interweave in Darbee’s astro-patriotism. “By staking out bold positions, we of course invite controversy.”  But the position was that you unilaterally wrote a constitutional amendment to crush the democratic powers of local governments – and further weaken the legislature and California Public Utilities Commission. This was not an expression of opinion, but a calculated assault upon the Republic of California. Darbee’s final meditation is to muse that “the alternative is to be cowed by fear of criticism into ducking our leadership opportunities and responsibilities. Surely our society needs more leadership, not less.”  The image is classic Napoleon, the tyrant who fears impotence. Once can barely hear the barely audible voice amplified into deafening roar on California’s airwaves, and in the minds of California’s voters.

A vote that Darbee’s “expression of opinion” failed to win. “After a lively debate, the voters have now spoken on Proposition 16 and we respect the outcome.”  Well la-di-da. “We hope our critics will equally respect our willingness to participate in the system and engage on the important issues of the day.” The Supreme Court’s recent decision to officially sanction corporate personhood for full financing of congressional elections, Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission, could not find a better refutation than the blank platitude that Prop 16 was PG&E's way of “participating in the issues of the day.” Prop 16 was an industrially manufactured assault on democracy: a globalized, bailed out holding company unleashing its market power against the traditional constitutional authority of local governments in California. “Through mutual engagement and mutual dialog, we can improve our company, our communities, and our country.” The global corporation's patriotic phrases transmute into traitorous threats. With friends like you, mister, who needs enemies?

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