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The Bleeding Hearts Dry Up 5 - California Burning

Misgovernance, not climate change, caused California's fire problem.

By Will Offensicht  |  January 8, 2020

So far in this series, we've explored a number of situations where activists' crusades have not only failed to achieve their stated goals, they've made the situation visibly and unarguably worse.  Not only do these activists pay no price for their misbegotten plans, they encourage politicians to double down on policies which are known not to produce the desired results - almost as if they don't even care about reality of results at all, only about gaining wealth and power for themselves.

Assigning Blame

One of the basic principles of engineering is that you can't fix a problem if you don't know what caused it.  That's OK with politicians and bureaucracies because solving problems denies them the opportunity to ask for more money next year.  Shifting blame gives them far more money and power, particularly if they can find some way to blame an unpopular group like rich businessmen, racists, or the patriarchy.

We described an example when a crane fell off a building in New York City.  The building department said it would take months to determine the cause of the accident, but they implemented new regulations immediately to make sure it didn't happen again.  Their first new rule was that a department inspector had to be present whenever a crane was moved, erected, or dismantled.

That's silly - if nobody knows what went wrong, what would the inspector watch for?  The cause of the crane crash eventually turned out to be a defective weld from when the crane was assembled in China.  Without X-ray vision, no inspector can prevent accidents due to bad welds, but the regulation stayed in effect to help build staff and budget at the department.

Because action was taken before blame was properly assigned, the rule change will accomplish nothing at vast expense.  As prices to pay for government stupidity go, though, this is petty cash.  California wishes its governmental problems were so small.

Real Causes of Conflagrations

One of the major reasons for the increasing severity of California fires is that the local climate is getting hotter and drier.  Warmer weather means that the prime fire season is 40-45 days longer than in the past.  The longer vegetation goes without rain, the drier it gets and the more vigorously it burns.

This is to be expected, however, because climate changes.  The Vikings ranched cattle in Greenland during the Medieval Warming Period and starved when the climate turned cold.  The name "Greenland" was not a marketing gimmick.  Climate became a lot cooler all on its own back then, long before anyone dreamed of petroleum-fueled motorcars or coal power plants.

A paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports:

Today, northwest Greenland hovers in the 30s and low 40s Fahrenheit and weathers snowstorms in summer. But average summer temperatures in the early Holocene (8,000 to 11,000 years ago) and Last Interglacial (116,000 to 130,000 years ago) climbed well into the 50s.

If Greenland was 10-20 degrees warmer in the past due entirely to natural processes, and the cooling since the Viking era has reversed to warm things back up, it would seem that California would be better off preparing for more warming than complaining about the heat.

Climate change aside, there are four well-documented man-made causes of more and bigger fires:

Poor forest management.  Before the US Forest Service arrived, forests in the American West were burned every 10-20 years by fires ignited by lightning or other natural causes.  This burned low-lying brush and cleared the ground for seeds released from their protective cones by the heat of the fire.  Some trees won't release seeds unless there's a fire to clear away underbrush to give the new seeds enough space.

By stopping any and all fires, the Smokeys let brush pile up so that when a fire got going, it would be a huge fire instead of a relatively minor matter which animals could outrun and from which trees would recover.  2018 wildfires produced about 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.  That’s nine times the amount by which California cut emissions the previous year. They're going backward even by their own definition of what the objective ought to be.

Housing regulation.  California has such draconian zoning and planning regulations that buildable land is rare.  People have been building further from cities into the Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI, which are forested areas where houses are at greater risk of burning. Buildings in the California WUI increased 20% from 1990 to 2010.

The California WUI is drier than most, however, so their fire risk increased more than other states experienced.  By law, PG&E must provide electric service in these areas, which increases the probability of their long-distance high-tension wires starting more fires as they run through drier areas.

PG&E is now being bankrupted by problems with power lines run through areas the law required them to serve.  If PG&E were truly an independent capitalist business that made business decisions based on business motives and the desire for profit, it would have either refused to provide service to dangerous locations, or (more likely) demanded that their own lines be buried safely underground and charged those customers accordingly.

Logging restrictions.  California activists have lobbied long and hard for rules which essentially prohibit logging.  The permitting process they've imposed makes it difficult for PG&E to cut trees which look like they're ready to fall across their wires.  Tree huggers want trees to mature, die, fall over, and rot back into the soil because it's more "natural" than being turned into usable timber.  We folks who actually live in the forest and know what trees look like outside of nature shows, use the word "kindling" to describe fallen tangles of dead trees.

This isn't a California-only issue.  The Australian Daily Telegraph shows that greens block controlled burns in Australia so that when fires get started, they're unstoppable.

No matter what legalistic and linguistic ploys are now used to rewrite history, green hostility to proper bushfire management is on the record, from the light-green NIMBYs who object to smoke, to green lobbyists who infiltrate government decision-making, taxpayer-funded green activists who embed themselves in government agencies, the bureaucratic green tape which makes the job of volunteer firefighters so difficult, the green NGOs who strongarm politicians, right up to the political arm of green ideology, The Greens.

Liability for fires.  The California Supreme Court ruled that PG&E is liable for any damage by any fire caused by its equipment whether it had been negligent or not.  Even though only about 10% of all fires are started by PG&E equipment, the cumulative liability of around $30 billion has forced PG&E into bankruptcy for the second time.  The ensuing uncertainties and confusion delay equipment repair, making fire-starting potential worse.

One of the main points of contention is the amount of fire-related liabilities.  Homeowners whose insurance companies refused to pay on the grounds that the fire was PG&E's fault say that PG&E owes close to $54 billion.

PG&E offered a settlement of $11 billion and some PG&E stock.  Many creditors want to accept, but others protest that it isn't enough.  Some insurance companies who wanted PG&E to pay their losses needed cash immediately and sold their claims against PG&E to hedge funds, sometimes for as little as 50 cents on the dollar.  The proposed $11 billion would give these funds several hundred million in profit and use up all the cash PG&E might otherwise spend on repairs.  The homeowners understandably want cash instead of PG&E stock of dubious value.

The fact that PG&E has also had to spend billions of dollars and scarce manpower connecting their network to distant "renewable sources" to meet California mandates hasn't helped their maintenance program.  Again, if you accept the theory that carbon dioxide is Bad for the Planet, and you believe in the science that measures the amount of CO2 released by the fires, and assuming you don't intend PG&E to use unpaid slaves to fix their equipment, you ought to want PG&E to have enough money to do whatever needs to be done to reduce fire risk.

You most especially should want them to be free to cut down any trees that present a fire hazard by growing too close to the wires.  But no, environmentalists and NIMBYs oppose any cutting by PG&E.  "'They cut down 25 trees to protect a single strand of wire,' Macy [a community resident] said."  A more truthful way of putting it would be, they cut down 25 trees to prevent 100 houses and the whole forest being burned down - but, of course, no reporter worth his Greenpeace membership card would ever say it that way.

Fake Causes Lead to Fake Cures

Whenever there's a major fire, California politicians start by blaming "climate change" - which is the voters' fault because they insist on driving polluting automobiles and are abandoning dangerous mass transit.  They then shift to criticizing greedy capitalists such as the mangers of PG&E.  Their anti-capitalist chorus increased in intensity when PG&E started cutting power to reduce their liabilities when high winds were predicted in dry areas.

This is the second time in living memory that California has suffered a wave of blackouts.  19 years ago, California suffered rolling blackouts when the state deregulated wholesale electricity prices without allowing utilities to pass higher costs on to their customers.  This forced utilities to buy high and sell low, a money-losing proposition.  Suppliers refused to sell electricity to California as PG&E got close to bankruptcy.

After dithering for 11 whole months while the lights flickered on and off, the state government finally figured out that all they had to do was guarantee that power wholesalers would be paid.  Voila!  Problem solved, and all it took was (somebody else's) money.

The number of residents who suffered blackouts over 11 months two decades ago was exceeded by just one of the blackouts PG&E recently imposed to protect itself from fire liability.  Various letters to the editor observe that PG&E is being totally rational in reducing its revenues by cutting power to reduce its fire risk.

Rather than make the obvious point about changing PG&E's perverse incentives, most of them simply want PG&E to also be held accountable for losses when they cut the power.  As if PG&E, already in bankruptcy court, were an inexhaustible source of money!  Money alone won't solve the problem this time - fixing wires, upgrading towers, and cutting back underbrush will take years of actual work.

Burying wires is no panacea either.  It costs two or three times as much as running overhead wires and takes longer.  What's worse, there is no known insulation that isn't beloved of burrowing critters.  Our friends who climb poles and fix wires assure us that no matter what insulation they try, something, be it a mole, weasel, squirrel, chipmunk, mouse, rat, or whatever, will gnaw on the insulation, electrocute itself, and shut off the power.  Breaks in overhead wires are pretty easy to find; a dead squirrel deep underground is a lot harder to locate and dig up before the wire can be fixed.

Another Activist "Solution" Known Not To Work

To any progressive, the obvious solution to any problem with services provided by any private company such as PG&E is for the government to nationalize the business, take it over, eliminate unjust profit, and operate it in the service of Power to the People.  Indeed, the Wall Street Journal tells us that the mayor of San Jose and other mayors and city managers representing nearly 1/3 of PG&E's service area want to turn the utility into a customer-owned cooperative.  The Public Utilities Commission, which must certify that any PG&E reorganization plan is in the public interest, will have to listen to them.

The city of Sacramento has its own electric utility. Its mayor said:

"I'm signing on in solidarity with my fellow mayors whose constituents are suffering under PG&E," said Mr. Steinberg, a Democrat who formerly led the state senate. He added that his city enjoys "the benefit of electricity being a public commodity and overseen by people who are accountable to the public."

It's true that PG&E has a considerable maintenance backlog - some of its high-tension electric towers are 108 years old - but because PG&E operates as a heavily-regulated entity, PG&E is anything but an example of how market-driven capitalism operates.  The mayor has a point that PG&E is not really accountable to the public -  it's accountable to the utilities commission, to top-level politicians, and to the diversity bureaucracy, certainly not to its customers - but one wonders how being government-owned would make any useful difference.

To be fair, nobody has figured out a good way to manage "natural monopolies."  It makes no sense to have more than one organization running electric wires, telephone wires, water, sewers, or gas pipes in any given geographic area.

Since the threat of competitors offering lower prices doesn't exist, the most common American method of keeping prices low is to create a "regulatory commission" to make sure that the utility doesn't gouge customers.  In practice, that boils down to keeping prices low no matter what - except when money is needed to support fashionable causes like locking land away from any sort of future use or hiring relatives of politicians.

The inevitable result of regulatory penny-pinching is deferred maintenance, equipment failure, and customer complaints.  In PG&E's case, this inevitable sequence is made worse by the fact that PG&E is liable for damage caused by fires ignited by its equipment.  Their delivery network doesn't support cutting power to smallish areas, so millions of Californians are re-learning the joys of second-world power outages as PG&E reduces its liabilities when high winds are predicted in dry areas.

So, we see that the efforts of environmentalists not only made life enormously worse for ordinary Californians, but harmed the planet by the same metrics trumpeted by environmentalists.  Why would anyone ever listen to such idiots again?

Yet it's the same politicians who are putting forward another "plan" that will only make things worse.  In the next article in this series, we'll examine the folly of having the various towns and cities in California take over PG&E's assets and try to operate them in a manner that is "accountable to the public," whatever that means.  We've had enough experience with cities taking over failing transit businesses to know how municipal or state ownership works out, every single time.