PG&E Tries to Steer Judge Away From Fire Safety Crackdown

By Joel Rosenblatt | February 13, 2020

PG&E Corp. told a federal judge it opposes his proposals to intervene in the company’s wildfire prevention efforts after it admitted to not fully complying with the terms of its criminal probation.

The bankrupt northern California utility’s pushback is a response to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who last month threatened to order the company to hire more tree trimmers and restrict how management doles out bonuses.

The San Francisco judge is overseeing PG&E’s probation after it was convicted in 2016 of gas-pipeline safety crimes. Failure to comply with any law is a violation of probation. Alsup is testing how far he can push the utility to prevent its equipment from causing another devastating wildfire as it simultaneously navigates a complicated exit from bankruptcy.

The judge has set a Feb. 19 hearing to determine what he should do after PG&E reported in January that it fell short on commitments to inspect and repair lines, and clear vegetation and branches to maintain safety standards in compliance with California law.

“While PG&E appreciates the court’s desire to find ways to speed up the completion of that work, an order directing PG&E to hire tree trimmers as part of its own workforce would be counterproductive,” PG&E said in a filing late Wednesday. “There is a critical statewide (indeed, nationwide) shortage of qualified and experienced tree workers that the court’s proposed hiring condition will not solve.”

Alsup is also contemplating restricting bonuses and incentives for supervisors and executives, requiring the utility to redirect the money to wildfire prevention and safety goals. PG&E took issue with that in its written response.

“There is no evidence suggesting that making safety performance the exclusive criterion rather than the most important criterion (as PG&E does) improves safety outcomes,” the utility said. “Moreover, PG&E is unaware of any utility that gives no weight to financial performance in its incentive calculations.”

In a $2.6 billion safety plan that PG&E filed with state regulators this month, the company plans to continue its fire-proofing work including aggressive tree-trimming and grid hardening programs. The utility plans to prune or remove 1 million trees this year from power lines.

It will also install 240 miles of covered electric wires, up from 171 miles deployed last year, and add hundreds of additional weather stations and cameras to help it monitor fire conditions in its service territory.

PG&E was forced into bankruptcy after its equipment was blamed for sparking deadly fires, and took the extreme measure of widespread shutoffs last year as a way to prevent blazes during dangerous weather. California Governor Gavin Newsom has threatened a state takeover of PG&E if it can’t improve its safety practices.

The case is U.S. v. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., 14-cr-00175, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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