Former regulators and ratepayer advocates were encouraged Wednesday by the president of the state’s Public Utilities Commission’s apparent willingness to consider pursuing a state takeover of PG&E if it fails to meet wildfire safety commitments.
In her letter to the company’s interim CEO on Tuesday, CPUC President Marybel Batjer put PG&E on notice that its “failed record in safety” could jeopardize its wildfire safety certification this year. Batjer added that fact-finding needed to justify further intervention – which by law could include seeking a state takeover -- had already started. The CPUC will pursue “enhanced oversight,” she said, if PG&E is not living up to its wildfire safety commitments.
“When PG&E is unable to do this on its own,’’ Batjer warned, “we have used, and will continue to use, the tools and authority at our disposal to hold PG&E accountable for these responsibilities.”
“This is a good step,” said former CPUC commissioner Catherine Sandoval, a professor at Santa Clara School of Law.
She says the move is clearly justified – based on recent vegetation management and tower inspection failures cited in a federal monitor’s report just last month. Added to that, she says, is PG&E’s recent acknowledgement that it failed to cut down two trees deemed at risk near the origin of the Zogg Fire, that killed four people in Shasta County.
“I have become very concerned over the years that PG&E is not learning the lessons from its failures, and is not implementing them,” Sandoval said on Wednesday. She says she hopes raising the prospect of takeover will help drive home a message that the utility has to change.
Steven Weissman, a former CPUC administrative law judge, says writing a strong letter is one thing. But the drastic step of revoking PG&E’s permission to operate is quite another. Still, he says, the letter signals that regulators are at least willing to consider the action that had long been viewed as unthinkable.
“The commission,” he said, “has opened itself up to the possibility, even if it’s a remote possibility, that it might take away PG&E’s authorization.”
Mark Toney, head of the ratepayer advocacy group TURN, said he was also encouraged that regulators are considering the withholding of PG&E’s wildfire safety certification – which he says would leave the company ineligible to draw from a wildfire backup reserve created under state law.
“For really the first time we are seeing the CPUC not simply rubber stamp the safety certification, and that is progress,” Toney said.
PG&E said in a statement in response to the Batjer letter that it has made substantial safety improvements this year and is working hard to live up to its safety commitments, adding:
“We recognize the issues that have been raised and we are listening to this feedback and taking it seriously. We agree that, when it comes to safety, there is always more that can be done.”