A federal judge on Tuesday barred PG&E from issuing stockholder dividend payouts until the company demonstrates it won’t spark more wildfires.
Citing PG&E’s "rampant wrongdoing" for failing to properly trim trees away from power lines and sparking many of the state’s recent fires, U.S. Judge William Alsup rejected the company’s objections and ordered five new probation conditions in the criminal case over the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion.
The conditions include a ban on stock dividends until the company can show the court it’s complying with all state tree and power line clearance rules and has fulfilled the provisions of its recently announced wildfire safety plan.
Under the court’s order, the utility must fully document its efforts and agree to cooperate with audits performed by the court-appointed monitor already overseeing gas safety efforts.
Before imposing the new restrictions, the judge reiterated his concern that the company handed out $4.5 billion in dividends in lieu of spending more to assure trees were cut safely away from power lines before the North Bay fires in 2017 and the Camp Fire in Butte County last year.
While tree clearance violations have been cited in a dozen of the North Bay fires, the Camp fire has been tied to a worn hook that failed on a transmission tower.
Alsup said that since many of the fires were PG&E’s fault, the company faced "a problem of your own making and you have to undo that problem" and "make it square with the people of California."
After the hearing, wildfire attorneys – whose lawsuits are now unable to go forward given the company is in bankruptcy – praised the new restrictions as a measure of progress in averting more calamities.
"He was very firm in his demands that this company get its house in order," said Frank Pitre, who represents victims of both the North Bay and the Camp fires.
Pitre said he was especially impressed by Alsup’s offer to take the inevitable heat from customers that would be created by ordering the company to shut down power lines to avert fires. Currently, the company has a voluntary program, and Alsup repeatedly offered to make it mandatory.
"It would be reckless in my view, to keep power on in those circumstances,"the judge said, adding: "I suggest to you that I’m willing to take the heat. PG&E can blame me … when customers complain."
While PG&E did not immediately take Alsup up on his offer, Pitre said the judge should get credit for extending it.
"I thought that was remarkable," he said. "I applaud him for his courage in taking on a responsibility that legislators, the CPUC and PG&E seems incompetent to do."
The judge’s offer comes as regulators with the state’s Public Utilities Commission are developing regulations related to power shutoffs going forward.
"What the judge did today was great," said another wildfire attorney, Dario de Ghetaldi, outside court.
He said he hopes the judge will agree to his request to release audits done by the court-appointed monitor to the public. But what the judge has done so far, he says, represents more than anyone else has done to deal with the prospect of more wildfire disasters.
"It’s about time that somebody did something along those lines. So we’re very appreciative of that," de Ghetaldi said.
PG&E said in a statement that it shares the judge’s "commitment to safety" and understands "we must play a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfire throughout northern and central California."
The company said it welcomed working with the monitor, adding: "As we informed the court, we remain committed to complying with all rules and regulations and working hard to keep our customers and communities safe."