Protesters lock arms in front of PG&E, cause Muni disruptions

A small protest of less than 100 people in front of the Pacific Gas & Electric corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco drew people who locked their arms together in an act of civil disobedience that also affected traffic and Muni service.

Protesters organized by the Color of Change sat down in the street in front of 77 Beale St. with signs that read "Unplug PG&E, not us," "Killing us for Profit" and "Fires, shutoffs, climate chaos." 

Emphasis was placed on the system's 193,000 medical base customers, who suffer disproportionately when Public Safety Power Shutoffs occur. 

Activists say they want to PG&E to dissolve its ownership. Groups represented at the protest included; wildlife survivors, racial justice groups and those with disabilities.

"This is not an inconvenience like PG&E has said. They have said, ‘Oh, people should make plans.’ What plans do you make if you don't have power to run your oxygen tank or your C-PAP? If you don't have money to go to a hotel room or if you don't have transportation to get to someone else's house? What do you do if you don't have a place to put your insulin in the refrigerator and you depend on it for survival?" said Power To Live Coalition's Jessica Lehman.

"I think that it's time that the people owned the utilities and owned the means to create energy," said demonstrator Libby Baxter. 

For a while, inbound 5/5R, 7, 9R, 38/38R, and 41 routes were being blocked by protest activity on Market and Beale streets. SFMTA was posting updates on its Twitter page.

The protest comes days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom opposed the utility's restructuring plan, which a week ago, struck a $13.5 billion settlement with fire victims.

That veto meant PG&E needs to go back to the negotiating table and come up with a solution to meet a June 30 deadline to emerge from bankruptcy protection and regain its financial footing. 

"I think it's bad to have a major, for profit corporation control the very basic utilities we need to live on," said demonstrator Michael Fitch. Another demonstrator said the utility has made many bad decisions over the last few decades that has impacted his life and everyone he knows. 

"The governor wants to make sure than PG&E emerges out of bankruptcy a new company; new CEO, new Board of Directors." said consumer advocate Mark Toney of TURN, The Utility Reform Network.

Missing the deadline would prevent PG&E from being able to draw from a special fund created by the Democratic governor and state lawmakers to help insulate California utilities from future fires that many people believe are bound to erupt as a changing climate continues to create hazardous conditions. Utilities are at risk because their aging electric transmission lines are expected to take years to upgrade.

Protesters sit in front of PG&E headquarters with signs that read "Unplug PG&E not us." Dec. 16, 2019

"We are taking the appropriate steps to limit disruption at our facilities and to insure the safety of those in the area. PG&E is committed to working cooperatively with regulaors, policymakers and other stakeholders to continue to provide PG&E customers with safe gas and electrical services," they said on Monday. 

Toney said that can only happen if California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is also revitalized. 

"The CPUC needs to be different. The CPUC needs to embed staff in PG&E to hold them accountable," Toney said. 

Critics have said CPUC has been too cozy with utilities leading to many of these problems. 

Last week, PG&E filed an amended reorganization plan with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court after reaching a settlement on Dec. 6 with thousands of people who lost homes, businesses and family members in a series of devastating fires. 

In his letter on Friday, Newsom said the plan does not comply with state law and does not achieve the goal of addressing what he considers its most important elements: providing safe and reliable power to PG&E customers. 

 "We've welcomed feedback from all stakeholders throughout these proceedings and will continue to work diligently in the coming days to resolve any issues that may arise," PG&E said in a statement.

 Without the added protection of the California wildfire fund, PG&E would likely find it more difficult to borrow money to pay for the necessary upgrades and perhaps even fund its ongoing operations if it remains mired in bankruptcy proceedings beyond June 30.

If PG&E can't get a revised deal with the fire victims approved, it also will face the specter of navigating through two other legal gauntlets early next year that would be used as an alternative way to estimate how much the company owes for the catastrophic wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that killed nearly 130 people and destroyed about 28,000 structures in its sprawling service territory. 

One, a California state trial to be held in January, will determine whether PG&E is liable for a 2017 fire in Sonoma County that the company hasn't accepted full responsibility for. The trial would also award damages to the victims if PG&E is blamed. A subsequent proceeding, known as an estimation hearing, is scheduled in February before a federal judge to determine PG&E's total bill for all the fires that could have been covered in the settlement that had been worked out with the victims.

 Attorneys for the fire victims so far have collectively lodged claims of about $36 billion against PG&E, according to court documents. But that figure could rise even higher after the state trial and estimation hearing, and it if does would likely leave PG&E unable to meet its financial obligations -- a development that could lead U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali to declare the company insolvent. 

If that were to happen, it would automatically void a separate $11 billion settlement deal PG&E has reached with insurers who say they are owed $20 billion for the fire insurance claims they expect to pay their policyholders in the wildfires blamed on the utility. The insurance settlement, though, is also being opposed by Newsom, and is still awaiting Montali's approval.

The governor "may have upset a rather delicate bankruptcy process," said Jared Ellias, a bankruptcy expert at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

 "We're going to see how resilient the deal that comes out of this process is going to be and whether it can adjust to meet his approval," he said.

   AP reporters Daisy Nguyen and Michael Liedtke contributed to this report.

Protesters want PG&E to dissolve. Dec. 16, 2019