A Month Out From Wildfire Season, PG&E Is Behind on Tree Work

(Bloomberg) -- California is just one month away from the official start of wildfire season and bankrupt utility giant PG&E Corp. is running behind on inspections, repairs and tree-trimming that was ordered up to reduce the risk of another devastating blaze.

PG&E, due to circumstances beyond its control -- such as a rainy winter and permitting requirements -- has been finding it difficult carry out the fire-prevention measures, the San Francisco-based company said in a court filing late Thursday. As a result, it’s pushing back completion dates for fire-prevention work, PG&E told a federal judge who is supervising its criminal probation for previous safety lapses related to its natural gas pipeline system.

PG&E is facing intense scrutiny over its operations as its equipment is suspected of igniting the deadliest fire in California history last year. The Camp Fire killed 85 people and all but destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California in November. The company was forced to filed for Chapter 11 to deal with an estimated $30 billion worth of liabilities stemming from that fire and others that its equipment has been blamed for causing.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, saying the company needs “strong medicine” to cure a “clear-cut pattern” of starting wildfires, had ordered PG&E this month to comply with state laws requiring it to trim or remove trees and branches around power lines.

PG&E was down as much as 1.45 percent on Friday to $22.76.

The latest delays in PG&E’s fire safety measures may spark backlash as California lawmakers decide whether to help the company and other utilities pay for the damages mounting from increasingly extreme wildfires.

"It’s imperative that PG&E live up to its agreements to keep us safe from wildfires caused by their power lines,” said California State Senator Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa whose district was scarred by 2017 fires. “Anything less than that is unacceptable," said Dodd, who is leading a committee reviewing policy options outlined by Governor Gavin Newsom on how to address the state’s wildfire crisis.

PG&E said in the court filing late Thursday that some power-line repair work targeted to be done by May 31 and June 30 may be delayed and that costs for the safety program may rise. The utility wasn’t able to say by how much. The company also said fire-fighting helicopters that it’s waiting for will be delayed because of the federal government’s partial shutdown earlier in the year.

The utility is “working diligently to overcome these external challenges to avoid delays," PG&E said in the filing.

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