U.S judge holds off on imposing measures on PG&E to slash wildfire risks

FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise
FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

January 30, 2019

By Jim Christie

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday opted against changing terms for the time being of probation for PG&E Corp stemming from its felony conviction in a deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline blast that require the power provider to take aggressive measures to prevent wildfires, including shutting down power lines.

At the end of an often heated hearing, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup said he would hold off on changing terms because he wants to first see a report PG&E must submit by Feb. 6 to California’s utilities regulator on its measures and plans for tackling wildfire risks.

Alsup earlier this month proposed terms requiring San Francisco-based PG&E to cut back trees around power lines and turn off power in its lines during high winds that could topple trees and branches into lines and spark fires.

PG&E responded last week with a brief arguing it could cost up to $150 billion to fully comply with the scope of work Alsup had in mind, adding it would have to pass the bill to ratepayers who get their power from the company’s nearly 100,000 miles (161,000 km) of overhead lines in northern California.

PG&E estimated it would have to remove 100 million trees, an effort the company said would run into myriad legal obstacles and require contending with state and federal agencies and private property owners.

Shutting off power lines deemed unsafe during high winds would not be feasible because lines traverse rural areas to service cities and suburbs, and idling lines could also affect the power grid in other states, PG&E said.

Alsup proposed the terms as PG&E was preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection following massive wildfires that struck northern California in 2017 and 2018.

PG&E Corp filed for bankruptcy protection on Tuesday in anticipation of liabilities from the blazes, including November’s Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, California.]

Reinsurance company Munich Re has called the Camp Fire the world’s most expensive natural disaster of 2018 and pegged overall losses at $16.5 billion. Filing for bankruptcy shields PG&E from claims, giving it time to figure out steps for addressing wildfire liabilities it estimates at more than $30 billion.

While Alsup held off on revising probation terms, he found PG&E had violated its probation by not adequately communicating with its probation officer about a settlement over a 2015 fire.

Throughout the hearing, Alsup scolded lawyers for PG&E and said he intended to continue scrutinizing the company because the start of California’s fire season is only a few months away. He added that wildfire mitigation efforts will not suffice and PG&E must work to radically reduce the risk of wildfires from its equipment.

(Reporting by Jim Christie; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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