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Regulators Impose New Oversight on PG&E After Utility Falls Short on Wildfire Safety Work

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A worker in a cherry-picker working near the top of a utility pole.
A PG&E contractor works on utility poles near Geyserville on Oct. 31, 2019, in the aftermath of the Kincade Fire.  (Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images)

State utility regulators are imposing new oversight on PG&E after finding that the utility has fallen far short of its promises to remove dangerous trees from areas of its sprawling electrical network that are most prone to wildfires.

The California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously Thursday to place PG&E on the first step of an "enhanced oversight and enforcement" process the agency created when the company exited bankruptcy last year.

The vote followed a February audit by the CPUC's Wildfire Safety Division that found PG&E had failed to focus an ambitious and costly vegetation management program on the riskiest parts of its network.

The company's enhanced vegetation management aims to remove hazardous trees and limbs from along 25,000 miles of distribution lines in areas that Cal Fire and the CPUC have identified as having elevated or extreme wildfire threats. The program is projected to take a decade and tens of billions of dollars to complete, and PG&E committed to working on 1,800 miles of lines last year.

But February's CPUC audit found that while PG&E met that overall mileage target, the company bypassed virtually all of the lines it had identified as the riskiest in its entire network.

"The company completed less than 5% of its enhanced vegetation management work on what it had identified as its 20 highest-risk power lines," CPUC Executive Director Rachel Peterson told the five-member commission Thursday afternoon. That work accounted for just 92 miles of the 1,800 miles of line PG&E worked in 2020, she said.

The audit's findings mirrored those of a federal court monitor that reviewed PG&E's enhanced vegetation management work in 2019.

The monitor's October 2020 report to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the utility's criminal probation for violating pipeline safety laws and obstructing a federal investigation, found that the company focused on relatively low-risk areas.

"The company needs to do a much better job of prioritizing wildfire risk reduction within the mileage targets" of its enhanced vegetation management work, the monitor said.

Under the resolution approved in Thursday's commission vote, PG&E must file a detailed corrective action plan by May 5, with follow-up reports required every 90 days thereafter.

The company's response must include an explanation of why it failed to prioritize its highest-risk power lines for work last year, a list of enhanced vegetation management projects planned this year and the company's rationale for giving them priority.

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Under a decision adopted last year, the CPUC could escalate its enforcement actions against PG&E if it finds the company continues to fall short of safety requirements. The process could lead to forced restructuring of the utility or, in its final and most serious step, revocation of its license to operate.

Thursday's action comes as the commission is facing increasing pressure to increase its scrutiny of the company in the wake of a six-season series of PG&E-sparked wildfires that have killed more than 110 people and destroyed more than 15,000 homes.

Before the vote, a procession of speakers ripped PG&E for persisting in neglectful behavior that has put lives at risk, and driving up electricity rates to help pay for its reckless conduct. Many of the commenters also blasted regulators for lax oversight and urged they immediately rescind PG&E’s “license to burn,” as some described it.

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Some critics expressed anger that the commission canceled a planned vote on whether PG&E merited a safety certification for its wildlife safety measures last year. Regulators concluded that state law didn’t require them to vote on PG&E’s wildlife safety certification, even though they believe the utility mismanaged its tree-trimming program last year.

In a statement, PG&E said it has already made improvements to its tree-trimming program and will continue as part of its wildfire prevention efforts this summer.

“It is in all of our best interests to work together to improve our safety performance for the benefit of our customers and the communities we are privileged to serve,” the utility said.

In a separate proceeding, the CPUC's Public Advocates Office is urging the commission to reject PG&E’s 2021 wildfire mitigation plan — the company's annual state-mandated blueprint for all of its fire-safety activities ranging from public safety power shutoffs to increased weather monitoring to its enhanced vegetation management program.

In a March 29 report, the office blasted PG&E for “systemic weak management” that has led to its failure to prioritize the tree work along its riskiest power lines and many other problems.

In its reply, PG&E described the critique as a narrowly focused analysis that ignores “the substantial progress, work on wildfire mitigation initiatives, and successes that occurred in 2020.”

The utility highlighted a wide range of improvements and upgrades it made last year to reduce wildfire risks, as well as its work to reduce the scope of public safety power shutoffs conducted during dangerous weather conditions.

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press.

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