The Lesson of the California Wildfires

Dr. William R. Graham, Ambassador R. James Woolsey, Dr. Peter Vincent Pry

California’s rolling blackouts affecting millions, contributing to chaos caused by deadly wildfires consuming entire forests and neighborhoods, is an object lesson that the nation’s electric utilities cannot be trusted to protect the American people from EMP (including severe solar storms) or cyber warfare.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), California’s chief electric utility, failed to make basic commonsense upgrades to infrastructure, like replacing aged powerline towers that could collapse and cause fires.  PG&E failed to undertake obvious commonsense “vegetation management” (in industry parlance) safety precautions, like removing trees that could down powerlines and start fires.

PG&E is now deliberately engineering rolling blackouts as a “strategy” to reduce likelihood that powerlines downed by high winds will cause more fires, seeking to contain the wildfire crisis currently consuming California.

Consequently, millions of Californians are enduring periodic rolling blackouts, sometimes lasting days—inflicted on purpose by PG&E—while over 25 million are in “red flag” areas endangered by wildfires.

PG&E’s deliberately engineered rolling blackouts impede first responders, and civilians trying to survive or escape, by stopping running water, degrading communications and fuel availability for vehicles, and causing other significant problems.

California Governor Gavin Newsom condemns PG&E for “greed and neglect.”  People “can’t even access water or medical supplies.”

But Newsom compelled PG&E to invest billions in “green energy” to combat climate change—short-changing public safety.  Nor has Newsom’s California Public Utilities Commission required PG&E to protect the grid.

A San Jose Mercury News editorial rightly protests: “Northern California is not a third world country.  It’s unacceptable that the region is being forced to endure this level of disruption as the long-term strategy for dealing with the threat of wildfires.”

PG&E has barricaded its San Francisco headquarters against angry customers.

PG&E deserves condemnation, not only for the present crisis, but for a long history of neglecting basic public safety.

Six years ago, a 2013 report to the California Public Utilities Commission warned: “Several aspects of the PG&E distribution system present significant safety issues.”

In 2015, PG&E powerlines caused a fire in Butte that killed two.

In 2017, a PG&E powerline tower built in the 1920s, long past safe service life, collapsed causing a wildfire that destroyed 5,000 homes in Santa Rosa and killed two dozen.

In 2018, PG&E powerlines started a huge wildfire that consumed the town of Paradise and killed 85.

PG&E’s response to its worsening record of public safety?  Instead of stopping mismanagement and launching a crash program to fix grid infrastructure, PG&E filed for bankruptcy to escape liability for billions of dollars in damages inflicted on Californians.

If PG&E, one of the largest electric utilities in the United States, cannot be trusted competently to perform such basic and simple public safety precautions as vegetation management and powerline protection, clearly they are incompetent to protect the grid from more complex and much bigger threats that could kill millions—like EMP and cyber warfare.

The history of PG&E neglect of public safety and the current crisis in California happened despite PG&E being regulated by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the latter basically an industry lobby funded by utilities.

The EMP Commission Chairman’s Report (2017) warns: “The current largely self-regulatory structure of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), and the electric power industry was not designed to address U.S. survival under nuclear EMP or other hostile attack.  The Commission assesses that the existing regulatory framework for safeguarding the security and reliability of the electric power grid, which is based upon a partnership between the U.S. FERC and the private NERC representing the utilities, is not able to protect the U.S. from hostile attack.”   

Unwisely, the strategy concocted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Energy (DOE) to protect electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures from the existential threats posed by EMP and cyber warfare relies on “public-private partnerships” where the U.S. Government is the junior partner, essentially trusting the expertise and competence of the utilities.

The EMP Commission Chairman’s Report warns against this “doomed to fail“ strategy: “Regulatory inadequacy over the electric power industry for national security is demonstrated, not only in the failure of industry to protect the grid, but in lobbying by NERC, EPRI, EEI and other industry groups to oppose initiatives by federal and state officials and private citizens to protect the grid from EMP...”

Electric utilities and their lobbies—NERC, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and Edison Electric Institute (EEI)—lack expertise on EMP and cyber warfare and are not competent to protect the national grid from either threat.

Frighteningly, as wildfires and rolling blackouts roil California, DHS and DOE are out-sourcing  national security to the electric power industry, trusting the likes of PG&E, NERC, and EPRI to safeguard electric grids and the American people from a natural (solar) or manmade EMP catastrophe.

President Trump’s excellent “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses” (March 26, 2019) deserves better from DOE and DHS.  They should rely on EMP Commission threat assessments and recommendations.      

Dr. William R. Graham served as Chairman of the Congressional EMP Commission, President Reagan’s Science Advisor, ran NASA, and on the defense science team that discovered the EMP phenomenon and developed protective measures.  Ambassador R. James Woolsey was Director of Central Intelligence.  Dr. Peter Vincent Pry served as chief of staff of the EMP Commission and on the staffs of the Strategic Posture Commission, House Armed Services Committee, and CIA.


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