California

A judge wants to impose strict fire-safety rules on PG&E. Why the state is objecting

California officials Monday protested a federal judge’s plan to impose strict wildfire-safety rules on PG&E this summer, saying the plan could cause massive and potentially dangerous disruptions to electric service.

The Public Utilities Commission said U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s proposal would also interfere with multiple state agencies’ efforts to develop a wide-ranging fire-safety plan for PG&E. The PUC said it has “exclusive jurisdiction to regulate the safe and reliable operation of the electric system.”

PG&E has come under increasing pressure from state officials to reduce fire risks, in the aftermath of the 2017 wine country fires and the November Camp Fire. The Camp Fire killed 86 people and destroyed most of the town of Paradise. State officials say insured losses from the Camp Fire now exceed $8.4 billion.

Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s probation following its criminal conviction in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, has proposed ordering the troubled utility to inspect its entire 100,000 miles of power lines, remove or trim any trees that could catch fire and impose deliberate blackouts on windy days if it can’t certify that its system is safe.

PG&E has already pushed back on Alsup’s plan, saying it would cost $75 billion to $150 billion to implement. The utility, which plans to file for bankruptcy Tuesday in the face of growing wildfire liabilities, has its own plan for reducing wildfire risks that it says will cost nearly $1.3 billion this year.

Alsup has scheduled a hearing on his proposal for Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Like PG&E, the PUC described the judge’s proposal as too costly and unwieldy. “A utility’s costs of programs such as vegetation management, safety inspections, and asset repair and replacement must be orderly and executed over a schedule of years,” the PUC’s lawyers wrote in their court filing.

Although PG&E has its own blackout program — it cut power to 60,000 customers for two days last October as a preventive measure — the utility and the PUC warned the judge that big blackouts must be done carefully.

“Loss of electric service puts vulnerable populations at particular risk, as they might depend on others or community support services to function independently or perform daily activities, and de-energization disrupts these ‘lifelines,’” the PUC said. “De-energization of the electric grid must be carefully exercised because it leaves communities and essential services without electrical power.”

The commission acknowledged that “traditional regulatory enforcement mechanisms” have failed to prevent disasters at PG&E, such as the deadly San Bruno natural-gas explosion in 2010. But it asked the judge to allow it to move ahead with “nontraditional regulatory tools” to clamp down on the utility.

Cal Fire also made a court filing in response to Alsup’s proposal, saying it has been working with the PUC in recent years to reduce fires caused by utilities.

Cal Fire has blamed PG&E power lines and other equipment for a dozen of the 2017 wildfires, although it exonerated the utility for any blame in the worst of the 2017 disasters, the Tubbs Fire. The state agency is investigating whether a problem with a transmission tower was responsible for the Camp Fire.

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