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Judge’s order strives to reduce the number of fires caused by PG&E

“PG&E may not take into account the inconvenience to customers or its revenues and profits” over safety, says federal judge

Paradise, California Continues Recovery Efforts From The Devastating Camp Fire Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Wednesday, a federal judge in charge of Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) ongoing criminal probation laid out a series of new regulations on the utility that are “intended to reduce to zero the number of wildfires caused by PG&E in the 2019 wildfire season.”

In the most sweeping of the proposed changes to the terms of PG&E’s probation, Judge William Alsup says that the company must shut off power to parts of its grid whenever there is sufficient risk of a fire hazard:

At all times during the 2019 Wildfire Season (and thereafter), PG&E may supply electricity only through those parts of its electrical grid it has determined to be safe under the wind conditions then prevailing. Conversely, PG&E must de-energize any part of its grid not yet rated as safe by PG&E for the wind conditions then prevailing until those conditions have subsided. [...]

PG&E may not take into account the need for reliability of service, the inconvenience to customers resulting from interruption in service, or its impact upon PG&E’s revenues and profits.

This could mean extended blackouts for PG&E customers. But as Alsup points out, that’s a minor concern compared to the results of the state’s 2017 and 2018 wildfire records.

Alsup writes in his decision, “Cal Fire has determined that PG&E caused 18 wildfires in 2017, 12 of which Cal Fire referred for possible criminal prosecution.”

As a preamble to potential forced de-energization, Alsup also ordered the company to check all of its power lines again in coming months for potential fire hazards, noting “PG&E’s history of falsification of inspection reports.”

Transportation Sec. LaHood Tours Site Of PG&E Gas Explosion
A crater left by the 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Alsup has oversight of PG&E as a result of convictions in court stemming from the 2010 gas line disaster in San Bruno that killed eight.

The Wednesday decision notes that since “a corporation cannot go to prison, so the criminal judgment [...] imposed several conditions of probation,” to which Alsup now seeks to add these additional impositions.

Cal Fire is still investigating several other recent wildfires, including the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 86 people and which PG&E may be liable for as well, although no cause has yet been determined.

The company’s potential for losses over fires has led to reports of potential bankruptcy or sale, which PG&E itself neither confirms nor denies. State lawmakers are also considering drastic steps like breaking up PG&E or taking it over.