Despite Shortfalls, PG&E Exits Criminal Probation and is Awarded Safety Certificate after Meeting Statutory Requirements

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By Justin Dalton

On January 19, 2022, U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California issued his final comments upon the expiration of Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) five-year criminal probation term in the matter of United States v. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Case No. CR 14-0175 WHA (N.D. Cal.). PG&E was placed on criminal probation in January 2017 after being convicted of six felonies in 2016, resulting from the 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people, injured 58 more and destroyed 38 homes. [24:1 CRLR 151]

In his comments, Judge Alsup recommended that PG&E remain on probation as PG&E has started more than 30 fires in the interim destroying more than 23,000 homes and killing more than 100 people. During this time PG&E hired independent contractor arborists to conduct line inspection and hazard tree removal work. Time after time PG&E blamed the fires on the work of the independent contractors and continued to rely on the independent contractors until they were required to hire and train their own arborists as a condition of their probation. This repeated behavior of attempting to shift blame highlighted how PG&E was more concerned with minimizing their liability, rather than making their power lines safer. Further, when the Dixie Fire started, PG&E had the opportunity to cut power when two out of the three conductors shorted and blew their fuses, cutting power to some of the customers in the service area. Instead of cutting power to the line immediately, they left power running in the third phase of the circuit, so they could continue turning the meter on the one remaining customer with power, while they were investigating the source of the blown fuses. By the time they could get to the remote section of line affected the fire had already started and the Dixie Fire was on its way to becoming the second-largest wildfire in California history.

Even with PG&E’s repeated failures at safely operating, the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to seek an extension on PG&E’s probation as there is no binding case law to extend a company’s criminal probation period. Even though “part of the predicate of that holding has since been eviscerated.”  On this decision by the U.S. Attorney’s office, Judge Alsup remarked that “PG&E [in these five years] has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California.”

Additionally, on January 31, 2022, the California Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety awarded PG&E a safety certificate pursuant to AB 1035 (Holden) (Chapter 79, Statutes of 2019), as PG&E had satisfied all the statutory requirements. The certificate is not an affirmation that PG&E has taken all possible steps to prevent its equipment from causing wildfires, nor does it shield PG&E from liability or litigation. However, the safety certificate allows investor-owned utilities, like PG&E, to recover their catastrophic wildfire costs from the California Wildfire fund and by passing the costs along to their California ratepayers. This safety certificate comes on the heels of PG&E being penalized $125 million, in December 2021 for their role in starting the 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County. Additionally, Sonoma County prosecutors are preparing to criminally charge PG&E for their role in the 2019 fire. Additionally, California Fire Investigators determined the 2021 Dixie Fire, the second-largest in California history, was started by a tree coming into contact with a PG&E power line. The fire raged through Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Tehama, and Shasta counties, and they have since filed for civil damages.

The safety certificate PG&E received will last for the year, and then at the beginning of 2023, they will be reevaluated to determine whether or not they will receive the certificate for the following year.

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