California regulators: PG&E’s tree trimming falls short for fire safety

California’s top utility regulator could force Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to undergo a stricter oversight process that could ultimately result in the company losing its license and being taken over by the state.

Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told PG&E in a letter Tuesday that her agency is investigating whether the company should take action against forest fires for safety reasons.

Batjer said commission staff were considering whether to include PG&E in a six-step process of escalating enforcement that was created when the company went bankrupt earlier this year. The most extreme end of the six steps could result in the Commission revoking PG & E’s operating license. In this case, the State of California can take control of the company.

However, it is not yet clear whether the Commission’s supervisory measures, if taken, would come close to this most serious move.

Batjer’s letter stated that “the Commission’s investigative activities are in full swing and are being carried out quickly”.

“My concerns arose out of a pattern of vegetation and asset management failures implying PG & E’s ability to provide safe and reliable service to clients,” she said in a letter to Bill Smith, interim CEO of parent company PG&E Corp.

Batjer said staff at the Commission’s Wildfire Safety Division found a “volume and rate of errors” in PG & E’s pruning program that is “significantly higher than that observed for the other utilities”. Commission officials are also reviewing relevant court files in the company’s criminal case, she said.

PG & E’s bankruptcy was sparked by responsibility for a multi-year series of devastating forest fires that killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes. When the Commission approved PG & E’s plan to resolve the bankruptcy, it also created the new enforcement process to provide more concrete steps regulators could take if the company did not resolve its action.

Aside from a possible revocation of the license, the new regulatory process includes less stringent steps such as improved reporting, more oversight of operations and the appointment of new officials to oversee the company.

Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the Utilities Commission, said in an email that Batjer’s comment on the six-step monitoring process is “a general reference” that includes all possible outcomes. The letter is not intended to “indicate a specific step” before commission staff make a recommendation, she said.

“PG&E doesn’t need to go through the steps in the correct order and can be placed in any step of the trigger depending on the situation,” Prosper said in the email.

In a statement emailed, PG&E spokesman James Noonan said the company was focused on safety, but officials “know we have more to do and we are determined to get it right”. He noted the progress made by PG&E on its forest fire safety plan this year and said the company was working to address the issues raised by the Commission’s fire safety staff.

“We recognize the issues that are being raised and we listen to this feedback and take it seriously,” Noonan said in the email. “We agree that more and more can be done when it comes to security.”

PG&E has a new CEO, Patti Poppe, who will take over management of the parent company in January.

JD Morris is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @thejdmorris

Comments are closed.