In a new 16-page proposal that's now under review by the powerful California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the commission president is suggesting several milestones for PG&E to reach as it emerges from bankruptcy. And she leaves open the possibility of having the state revoke PG&E's license to operate and seize control of the company.
“I am very concerned about PG&E’s pattern of safety-related failures,” says CPUC President Marybel Batjer. As the Mercury News reports, she cites all of PG&E's major disasters of the last decade, from the 2010 San Bruno gas main explosion that took eight lives, to the 2018 Camp Fire that took 85 lives. She continues, "These failures were most recently exemplified by PG&E’s management of last October’s Public Safety Power Shut-off events, which raises questions about its ability to effectively plan and execute on decisions and actions within its control."
Given that PG&E won't be permitted to settle its $52 billion bankruptcy proceeding without the five-member CPUC signing off on its reorganization plan, the milestones that Batjer lays out in her proposal this week have high stakes attached — though it remains to be seen if the state really has the bite behind its bark when it comes to taking over a utility of this size.
Among the things Batjer suggests are an independent monitor to supervise the company (if it fails to maintain its safety certificate as required by AB 1054), and "corrective action plans" from PG&E if the utility fails to get approval for its wildfire mitigation plan.
Meanwhile, PG&E was in federal court again for a hearing in its bankruptcy proceeding, and U.S. District Judge William Alsup demanded to know why PG&E's safety inspectors failed to see or fix a rusted, worn out hook on a power line very near the one that is blamed for sparking the Camp Fire. An independent inspector discovered the "rickety" line while working on behalf of victims' families and their attorneys last month, and submitted photographs to Alsup.
As the Chronicle reports, Alsup reprimanded the company for having to turn out the lights for at least a million Californians last fall do to the dangers of its own power grid. And when a lawyer interjected that a perfect tree-trimming record still would not reduce the need for safety blackouts, Alsup shot back, "No. You have no credibility."
Further, he said, "The U.S. attorney’s office ought to be prosecuting you now for what you’ve done on the electricity front. Your company poses a threat to the safety of Californians."
PG&E is easily one of the most embattled private companies in the country right now, and with good reason. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came after PG&E in a new campaign ad last week, and last month, Governor Gavin Newsom said in some remarks that "PG&E no longer exists" — in that however it emerges from bankruptcy or if becomes a public utility, it will not be the same company. Back in December, Newsom flatly rejected a draft restructuring plan for the company that was submitted to his office.
PG&E's lawyers admitted to Judge Alsup, per the Chronicle, that line inspections are "a human process" and humans make mistakes. But Alsup apparently seemed disgusted all around, and he demanded a written response from PG&E about whether an inspector missed the worn hook entirely, or if an inspector believed it did not pose a safety risk.