Regulators Push for PG&E Safety Probation Over Tree Cutting Lapses

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Saying that PG&E has not been clearing enough trees away from power lines at highest risk of sparking wildfire, California Public Utilities Commission regulators Thursday threatened to put the troubled utility on probation – the first step in the regulatory process that could lead to a public takeover.

“PG&E is not doing the majority of (vegetation clearance) work – or even a significant portion of work – on the highest risk lines,” CPUC executive director Rachel Peterson said in a draft motion seeking to impose probation, which is set to go before the commission in April.

Such a vote, Peterson noted, would be the first step in the process that could trigger “the potential revocation of PG&E’s ability to operate as a California electric utility.”

According to the audit released earlier this month, the company has been doing the bulk of tree clearance on lower risk lines, a conclusion backed by a court-ordered safety monitor helping the judge oversee PG&E’s criminal probation related to the San Bruno gas explosion.

The audit found that of 161 power lines auditors reviewed from last year, only five percent of PG&E’s efforts had been dedicated to the 20 lines PG&E’s own ranking system deemed at highest risk of sparking a wildfire.

Regulators said the discrepancy was only found “through persistent inquiry” by commission staff and not from any admission by the utility. In fact, Peterson said, the company provided inconsistent information about how it ranks risk on its lines, “but under any of PG&E’s risk rankings, PG&E has not made sufficient progress toward risk-driven investments” in vegetation clearance efforts.

The regulators said the company provided three sets of risk rankings, in September, December and then in January. The company reported having cleared trees along 1,800 miles of its system across 161 distribution circuits last year.

 But using the company’s September risk rankings, fewer than 60 miles had been cleared for lines deemed as the 20 highest risk of sparking a wildfire. Even under recently revised risk rankings, the company’s  record only improved to clearing 92 miles along the 20 highest risk lines.   

“This result is the opposite of the desired result and contrary to the expectations …. PG&E would demonstrate progress toward approved safety or risk-driven investments,” the commission executive director concluded.

In a regulatory filing on Friday, the utility said it is working on a plan to respond to the concerns and had already made improvements to account for the issues raised in its recently filed wildfire mitigation plan.

In a statement, PG&E said it is taking the matter seriously and will “promptly prepare the corrective action plan to address the issues in the draft resolution, with clear timelines and commitments. We are committed to this critical work, and we welcome continued feedback and oversight from the CPUC and other stakeholders as we continue to learn, adapt and strengthen our system for the long term.”

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