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PG&E says federal penalties could quintuple customer rates

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Embattled utility claims judge’s order is impossible to fulfill, could cost $150 billion

Utility Worker Trainees Learn Pole-Climbing Skills
PG&E’s pole climbing training facility in 2012.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), the embattled San Francisco-based utility still tabulating the price it will pay for sparking recent California wildfires, alleged this week that the anti-fire measures a federal judge ordered are nearly impossible to fulfill. This could cost the company up to $150 billion, and might lead to utility bills five times higher than normal.

On January 9, Judge William Alsup ordered PG&E to invest in a sweeping renovation of its electrical infrastructure designed to “reduce to zero the number of wildfires caused by PG&E in the 2019 wildfire season.”

This includes checking all of its power lines and removing any nearby vegetation, as well as implementing strategic blackouts during times of fire hazard.

Alsup insisted that existing records about the conditions around power poles not be relied on thanks to “PG&E’s history of falsification of inspection reports,” and that everything must be done from scratch.

In a response filed Wednesday (reproduced by the San Francisco Chronicle), PG&E claimed that the judge’s orders are impossible.

The undertaking “would require the labor of more than 650,000 full-time employees” and “PG&E does not believe that it could assemble a workforce of such magnitude.”

In fact, the utility noted that “there are enough qualified tree trimmers and pruners available” for hire in California to complete the task.

PG&E estimated that the order would cost at least $75 billion and possibly as much as $150 billion, money that the bankrupt utility says it does not have.

“If the company were to try to fund the initiatives the proposal contemplates, PG&E would inevitably need to turn to California ratepayers for funding,” warned the brief. This could result in “an estimated one-year increase of more than five times current rates.”

A parallel response filed by the United State’s Attorney’s Office bolstered the company’s complaint.

Federal lawyers acknowledge that under the authority of PG&E’s criminal probation Alsup “may impose any condition that is reasonably related to the factors set” but say that Alsup’s plan is too impractical to execute.

“The government does not believe the record supports imposition of the proposed conditions,” said Assistant United States Attorney Hallie Mitchell Hoffman in a written statement.

Hoffman and the two other attorneys who authored the response added, “The United States shares the Court’s interest in [...] ensuring that the inhabitants of the Northern District are protected from the death and destruction.”

PG&E is subject to the conditions of probation after being convicted of charges related to the 2010 gas explosion that killed eight in San Bruno.

Alsup’s orders are not in response to Northern California’s most deadly and destructive recent fires—the 2018 Camp Fire, which remains under investigation, and the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which Cal Fire cleared PG&E of liability this week—but instead to the many smaller fires Cal Fire attributes to PG&E equipment and policies since 2017.