PG&E Bankruptcy Announcement Not a Surprise

One former regulator views PG&E’s bankruptcy announcement as an opportunity to bolster its safety culture while another worries that all the financial turmoil may imperil needed improvements.

Given all its recent troubles, though, both agree the company leadership needed to change.

"I think we've got a comprehensive vegetation management program, and I believe our employees executed it effectively," was how then-CEO Geisha Williams described PG&E’s vegetation management program in the months before the 2017 North Bay firestorm. 

As state prosecutors consider criminal charges in as many as a dozen fires and a federal judge is threatening mass inspections to prevent more, Williams has resigned. And with between $10 billion and $30 billion in liability looming from last year’s Camp fire in Butte County, the company is headed to court to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors.

With all the bad news, critics are looking for solace during a Jan. 30 hearing before Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’S probation in the case that grew out of the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.

Citing falsified safety records related to its 811 “Mark and Locate” program, Alsup has said he wants the utility to shut off any part of its electrical system during fire season that it can’t vouch for after a new round of inspections across its massive electrical grid.

State Sen. Jerry Hill says the good side of bankruptcy is that it could foster a change in the company’s long troubled safety culture.

“We could get safety in the end,” said Hill, who stressed that could only happen if fire victims and workers aren’t forgotten in the process. “If we can make sure they are protected, the ratepayers are protected, I think there may be some positives that can come out of bankruptcy.”

One way to assure that, says Loretta Lynch, former head of the state Public Utilities Commission, is for Judge Alsup to exercise his legal right to intervene in the bankruptcy process.

“In federal district court, clearly, the judge who is overseeing PG&E’s probation for their felony convictions has been very clear that he cares about the ratepayers, the victims and the workers as well,” said Lynch, who is a critic of the utility from her time on the commission.

But another former public utilities commissioner, Catherine Sandoval, worries that in the meantime, the company could have trouble hiring and getting financing given two financial firms have given it a junk rating.

“This is a situation where we have to maintain the airplane while in flight, right?,” Sandoval said. “We can’t get to the point where we sacrifice safety of the very system that has caused these fires, because of the credit issues.”

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