The federal judge overseeing Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) felony probation ruled the utility violated that probation before he condemned it for putting profits ahead of safety. US District Judge William Alsup stopped short of ordering his proposed additional probation requirements, saying he would first look at PG&E’s new wildfire mitigation plan, but he also said he was considering other restrictions on the company. Alsup’s harsh words came as reports were released indicating PG&E spent millions on lobbying efforts in 2018 and on the heels of the utility filing for bankruptcy.
Alsup: Does a judge ‘let you keep killing people’?”
Facing criminal probation already for its role in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, PG&E is now under investigation for its role in the 2017 and 2018 California wildfires. Though officials cleared the company of any wrongdoing in the 2017 Tubbs Fire—the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said private electrical equipment caused that fire, which killed 22 people—it has already been blamed for numerous other 2017 fires and an investigation into the deadly 2018 Camp Fire is ongoing.
It may also be PG&E’s policies and procedures that get the utility into trouble. According to reports, PG&E warned customers in Butte County that it could cut power to the region due to extreme fire conditions. It did not cut power and 15 minutes before the first fire report came in, PG&E reported that a transmission line in the area the fire started experienced a malfunction. Officials have not yet determined the cause of that fire.
PG&E argued that power shutdowns would affect vulnerable people, but Alsup rejected that excuse, asking whether a fire or an inconvenience was worse and noting that giving people adequate notice of a shutdown would allow them to prepare for such an event.
“Those fires killed 22 people, burned alive in their cars and homes,” Alsup said. “There is one clear pattern here: PG&E is starting these fires. Global warming is not starting these fires.”
Alsup also ruled that PG&E violated its probation by not giving its monitor adequate notice that it was under criminal investigation for its role in some of the 2017 fires.
“What do we do?” Alsup asked. “Does the judge just turn a blind eye and say, ‘PG&E continue your business as usual. Kill more people by starting more fires’.”
PG&E Declares Bankruptcy, Spent Millions in Lobbying
PG&E declared bankruptcy at the end of January, after giving the legally required advance notice of its plans to do so. The move transfers victims’ lawsuits and other claims against the utility to bankruptcy court and California Gov. Gavin Newsom is advocating for those victims, noting that they should be represented in bankruptcy proceedings.
Newsome’s letter to the federal trustee overseeing the bankruptcy spoke about the victims as well as the utility’s employees and customers, arguing that they do not have the financial backing of many of PG&E’s creditors but will be affected by the bankruptcy and deserve to be represented in the proceedings. Although the exact amount of PG&E’s liability has not been determined, it is estimated to be in the billions of dollars, depending on the results of the remaining investigations.
Alsup was not moved by the bankruptcy, nor by PG&E’s arguments that it did not have the money to hire skilled tree cutters, which would be needed if the judge moves forward with his proposed probation terms that would require all trees that could fall onto PG&E wires be cut back.
He berated PG&E for the $4.5 billion paid to shareholders in the past five years, some of which could have gone to safety programs such as cutting trees that were at risk of sparking fires. According to reports, PG&E spent $11.8 million in 2017-2018 legislative session on lobbying, while only $820,000 was spent on wildfire preparedness and response. In the 2015-2016 legislative session, PG&E spent $2.5 million on lobbying.
The hearing Alsup spoke at was to determine what new terms Alsup would impose on PG&E’s probation. He previously proposed requiring PG&E to cut all vegetation that could contact PG&E wires and requiring the utility to shut off power in extreme fire conditions, among other proposed limitations.
Alsup Directs Criticism at Regulators
PG&E was not the only entity to face Alsup’s wrath. He questioned the California Public Utilities Commission—which regulates investor-owned utilities—about how so many fires occurred on their watch. He also criticized the commission of working slowly and hiring former PG&E workers. Source: https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/01/30/federal-judge-to-decide-whether-to-toughen-pges-probation-terms-today/
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