PG&E Wages Dual Legal War on New Probation Terms

A PG&E electric transmission tower with a view of a jumper cable, one of which failed near the time and place where the Kincade Fire started in October 2019. (PG&E photo)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Pacific Gas and Electric launched a twofold legal assault late Wednesday to block a set of new probation terms aimed at preventing a repeat of destructive wildfires that scorched a large swath of Northern California in recent years.

Shortly before midnight, PG&E filed two motions urging U.S. District Judge William Alsup to reconsider his April 29 decision imposing new probation terms and asking him to halt enforcement of the new requirements while it appeals his ruling.

“A stay is warranted because the order is both procedurally and substantively unlawful, will cause PG&E irreparable harm, and threatens public safety,” PG&E wrote in an 18-page motion seeking a stay pending appeal. “The new conditions are more likely to undermine wildfire safety than they are to promote it.”

Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation for felony convictions related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, faulted PG&E for shoddy maintenance of its power equipment, which led to a series of catastrophic wildfires that killed at least 108 people and burned more than 22,000 buildings over the last three years.

“A fundamental concern in this criminal probation remains the fact that Pacific Gas & Electric Company, though the single largest privately owned utility in America, cannot safely deliver power to California,” Alsup wrote in his April 29 decision.

Aside from requiring PG&E to hire its own inspectors to flag trees too close to power lines and double check the work of contracted tree trimmers, Alsup ordered PG&E to design a new inspection system. The new system must include video recordings of every transmission line equipment inspection.

The judge also directed PG&E to track the age of every piece of transmission line equipment, including the actual or estimated date of installation. Alsup further required that PG&E’s contracted tree trimmers carry insurance “to cover losses suffered by the public should their inspections be deficient and thereby start a wildfire.”

PG&E argued in its motions that it was not given notice or an opportunity for a hearing on the specific conditions Alsup decided to impose. It added that the court’s criticism of its tree trimming and inspection programs “lacks a basis in the record.”

While PG&E has previously stated it could never certify full compliance with state regulations due to the sheer size of its 70,000-square-mile service area, the company argued in filings Wednesday that it is in “substantial compliance” with the law.

The company further insisted the new probation terms will make its electric grid less safe by diverting critical resources away from ongoing programs. Additionally, it contended the law does not allow the court to use its probation power to override state regulations.

“Courts are neither experts on such matters nor politically accountable for their decisions,” PG&E wrote in a 28-page motion for reconsideration.

The company said the new probation conditions will force it to redirect “substantial and finite resources” from ongoing safety work to focus on researching the vintage of millions of transmission tower components, “many of which are irrelevant to an assessment of wildfire risk, all for speculative safety gains.”

Requiring the company to overhaul its inspection program would also take focus away from “work that is truly necessary,” PG&E argued.

On the issue of hiring its own tree inspectors, PG&E submitted declarations by industry experts stating that utilities across the nation use contracted inspectors and tree trimmers because they are “highly specialized” and have already invested in the training, management and deployment of qualified personnel to perform tree safety work.

PG&E estimated it would cost $140 million in initial startup costs to hire its own tree inspectors followed by another $70 million over five years.

“PG&E’s leaders would be forced to divert their attention from critical ongoing safety work to build, from scratch, a new division of the organization employing 600 people, with all the requisite work to create systems, processes, controls and policies currently managed by contractors,” the company wrote.

On the requirement that it make video recordings of all transmission line equipment inspections, PG&E said there is no evidence showing that condition would enhance safety. Inspectors are already required to take date- and timestamped photos during inspections and use GPS data to record the physical location of inspectors at the time of inspection. Changing the system would “introduce uncertainty” into its operations and increase risks, the company said.

On another condition requiring it to “touch or tug” equipment during inspections, PG&E labeled that condition impractical because it would require “frequent, year-round de-energization of lines.”

In its motion for a stay pending appeal, PG&E argued that delaying enforcement of the new probation terms would serve the public interest because the new conditions could “lead to increased risk of wildfires by diverting focus and attention from ongoing safety efforts overseen by regulators.”

On Thursday, Alsup scheduled a telephonic hearing on PG&E’s motion for reconsideration for May 28 and agreed to stay enforcement of the new probation terms pending resolution of that motion.

%d bloggers like this: