Energy

PG&E's Energy Empire

| Wed Apr. 14, 2010 1:44 PM EDT

The largest electricity provider in California has now committed $35 million to a campaign to essentially crush any dreams of public utilities. Pacific Gas & Electric has a measure on the ballot for this June that would require a two-thirds vote for public utilities to open up shop or solicit new customers. Since that kind of majority is hard to finagle, Prop 16 could be a death sentence to competition against PG&E.

PG&E spends millions of dollars each year to defeat a public utilities option, but every few years it becomes an all-out rhetorical faceoff. The company calls its 2010 measure the "Taxpayers' Right to Vote Act," though the state attorney general made them change its official title. It was considered too misleading.

Last month at an investor conference, Peter Darbee—PG&E's CEO and the force behind the proposition—implied that their goal is to prevent votes from happening in the future. It seems Darbee is hoping that the two-thirds vote will deter utilities from trying to put a dent in PG&E's empire:

"The idea was to diminish, you know, rather than year after year different communities coming in as this or that and putting this up for vote and us having to spend millions and millions of shareholder dollars to defend it repeatedly, we thought that this was a way that we could sort of diminish that level unless there was a very strong, you know, mandate from voters that this was what they wanted to do."

The driving force against the initiative is the political action committee Utility Reform Network, which has raised about $43,000 to fight PG&E's $35 million. Meanwhile, there's a vote next month on executive pay at the company—a weighted event considering it paid $84.5 million in executive bonuses as the company recovered from bankruptcy in 2004. But you won't see that history on the Yes On Prop 16 Facebook page. The page does say that you should vote yes because "Right now we don't have the right to vote before local politicians spend or borrow public funds to set up government-run electric utilities."

The first comment that comes up on the profile page is "how do I unfan this? I clicked on it by accident." If only it were that easy.

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