Pacific Gas & Electric could face major consequences if a federal judge decides to implement various fire-prevention requirements on the company.
PG&E has already filed for bankruptcy protection and last week, the day after that filing, the company was given a warning by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is considering imposing the requirements, but did not make that ruling during the hearing.
The requirements could mean huge increases in utility rates for PG&E customers, something the company argued during the case could cause major harm.
PG&E’s lawyers also argued trying to implement the requirements the judge may impose would be almost impossible.
The judge could rule that PG&E must inspect and rate the safety of all of its power lines in the coming months, turn off power at times of fire risk and dramatically increase its tree trimming.
The company’s lawyers said PG&E is continuing to take steps to improve fire prevention. However, the lawyers said making progress as quickly as the judge could order might not be feasible. They cited a lack of tree trimmers to meet such a time line.
“The people don’t exist,” said PG&E attorney Kevin Orsini. “There aren’t enough qualified tree trimmers in the country.”
During the hearing, the judge didn’t hold back in his opinions of PG&E.
“To my mind, there’s a very clear pattern here: that PG&E is starting these fires,” said Alsup. “What do we do? Does the judge just turn a blind eye and say, ‘PG&E continue your business as usual. Kill more people by starting fires.’”
Another part of the possible order would be to make PG&E do mandatory power shut-offs. The company has introduced that practice and did so last October for about 60,000 customers in Northern California. That prompted complaints and demands for reimbursement by some customers.
PG&E’s attorneys argued that power cutoffs can impede first responders, crucial medical care and telephone service. All, the company argued, are critical during a wildfire.
Orsini agreed that wildfires in California are a major danger.
“PG&E is facing a fundamental problem. The state is facing a fundamental problem,” said the attorney.
The judge in the case is overseeing the probation violation of PG&E stemming from the 2010 San Bruno pipeline blast and has introduced the fire prevention proposal as he considers whether the utility’s role in recent fires violated the terms of the probation.
Though the judge did not rule on his plan for PG&E, he did find the utility had already violated its probation because of a reporting issue involving a 2017 fire.
The judge did order PG&E to send him a copy of a wildlife mitigation plan it must submit to state regulators this week.
Alsup then admonished PG&E for what he said is a false message being sent by the company.
“Why is it PG&E says, ‘Safety is our No. 1 thing’ — I hear it all the time, ‘safety, safety, safety’ but it’s not really true,” said the judge.
Orsini told the judge that PG&E “understands and accepts that it has a credibility problem.”
He went on to say the “PG&E that exists today” is different from how the company was in 2010 when the gas explosion happened and when the fires burned in 2017 in Wine Country. Orsini added PG&E knows it must “fundamentally change.”
Another agency involved in the case is the California Public Utilities Commission, which also had a representative in court last week.
The CPUC is the agency which oversees and regulates utilities, including PG&E.
“How did it happen that so many fires occurred under your regulation?” asked the judge.
CPUC attorney Christine Hammond said the commission is still investigating the extent of PG&E’s responsibility for the fires of 2017 and 2018.
Replied the judge: “We still don’t know what you think about fires almost two years ago.”
One of the major issues facing the company is its possible liability for the Camp Fire, which is the deadliest in California history. The fire almost completely destroyed the town of Paradise and left at least 86 people dead. The fire destroyed more than 18,000 structures and damage estimates are at around $16.5 billion.
Though it has yet to be officially determined if PG&E was responsible for the fire, some indications are a faulty circuit was brought to the attention of company officials at about the same time the fire started.
That fire alone could spell disaster for PG&E and was one of the reasons the company filed for bankruptcy protection the day before last week’s federal court hearing.
A day after that hearing, a lawyer representing PG&E said the company wants to set up a trust fund to use to pay the victims of fires. Skeptics, however, believe such a fund could mean victims receive less money than through court proceedings. That matter will be handled in bankruptcy court.
Though the judge delayed any decision about imposing stricture safety standards, he did say the court has several options, including mandatory trimming or removal of trees and limbs at any distance above power lines and a short-term electricity shutdown modeled after one used by the city of San Diego.
It is not known when the judge might make a final ruling in the case or how the probation situation could impact PG&E as it moves forward.
There has also be discussions about PG&E selling off its gas division.