Kathleen Ronayne, Associated Press
(AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. spent nearly $10 million on California lobbying efforts in the year before the utility giant declared bankruptcy, spending more than any other entity seeking to influence California government in 2018.
The majority of that money — more than $5 million — was spent for lobbying on proposals involving wildfire safety and response, including whether to reduce the strict liability utilities face when their equipment sparks wildfires.
Lawmakers ultimately didn't reduce the liability but passed a law making it easier for utilities to take out bonds to cover wildfire damages and pass some costs on to ratepayers.
"The actions we take are really on behalf of our customers and employees," PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said about the spending on lobbying. The money comes from shareholders, not ratepayers, she said.
PG&E, the nation's largest utility, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy Tuesday as it faces potentially tens of billions of dollars in liability from devastating wildfires that ripped through Northern California in 2017 and 2018. The bankruptcy filing could lead to smaller payouts to wildfire victims and increased costs for PG&E customers.
Paulo said worsening wildfires are the biggest issue facing PG&E and one of the most critical in California.
Katie Phillips, a spokeswoman for California Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates against money in politics, said the amount the utility spent is "shocking."
"It's a demonstration that people are just trying to buy influence in Sacramento," she said. "It's really disheartening to see that they were throwing money around when people's homes and lives were at stake."
The utility disclosed its most recent lobbying numbers in a Thursday filing with the California secretary of state.
Of the nearly $10 million spent, about $9.6 million went toward general lobbying, which includes things such as hiring in-house lobbyists or major Sacramento firms to advocate on behalf of legislation as well as paying for meals or other perks for state lawmakers.
Between July and September the company spent $6 million lobbying, including buying meals and event tickets for a handful of public employees and giving more than $10,000 in campaign contributions to nine sitting lawmakers and one candidate.
The utility also spent about $350,000 lobbying the California Public Utilities Commission, the entity that regulates it and other utilities.
PG&E is facing 750 lawsuits, its lawyer said in a Thursday court hearing.
Investigators still haven't determined the cause of the massive November fire that killed at least 86 people while devastating the town of Paradise. However, PG&E reported problems with their equipment near the site where the fire started.
Among California's other major utilities, Sempra, which owns San Diego Gas & Electric, spent about $1.4 million lobbying lawmakers in 2018 and another $167,000 lobbying the public utilities commission.
Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison, spent just more than $4 million on general lobbying and another $191,000 to influence the CPUC.
Behind PG&E, the second-highest spender for the year was the powerful Western States Petroleum Association, which spent nearly $7.9 million to influence California government.
Among its priorities were lobbying the California Air Resources Board as it implements two pieces of cap-and-trade legislation passed last year that aim to limit greenhouse gas emissions from oil refineries and other polluters.
It also lobbied to influence regulations on low carbon fuel standards and injection wells, according to its disclosure form filed Thursday. Chevron and its subsidiaries spent about $4 million on lobbying.