PG&E Gets U.S. Backing for Delay of Strict Fire Safety Demands

(Bloomberg) -- PG&E Corp. is getting support from the U.S. Justice Department in its request to hold off on implementing stricter and potentially costly safety measures until they’re fully evaluated.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup had ordered PG&E to hire, on its own payroll, an in-house team to spot-check the work of contractors who trim vegetation at risk of causing wildfires, and to take other safety measures. He put the order on hold though and gave the utility a May 28 deadline to submit a detailed plan.

PG&E is resisting Alsup’s order and is scheduled to present its arguments at a hearing also on May 28. On Thursday, the company got backing from federal prosecutors.

“The record is comparably thin on evidence to show that the specific conditions ordered by the court are reasonably necessary to improve PG&E’s inspections and thereby protect the public,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.

The Justice Department’s argument follows a promise from President Donald Trump to ease regulations on businesses hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to ease up on businesses that make good-faith attempts to follow agency guidance and regulations.

As it exits bankruptcy tied to fires linked to its equipment, PG&E is working to clear its lines of trees and make grid upgrades ahead of the fire season starting next month. It’s doing that under the scrutiny of Alsup, a sharp critic of the company.

The judge also directed PG&E to maintain a rigorously detailed inventory, and inspection system, for every piece of equipment on every transmission tower and line across its vast grid in Northern California. Videos must be taken of every inspection, Alsup said. Finally, the utility must require all contractors to be insured to cover any wildfire losses that can be traced to inspection oversights.

The prosecutors argued that Alsup should wait to impose his order until PG&E can confer with its regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, and a federal monitor previously appointed by the judge. PG&E and prosecutors say Alsup’s demands may interfere with the authority of state agencies including the CPUC and the state’s Wildfire Safety Division.

Alsup proposed adopting harsher penalties for PG&E if it fails to maintain proper vegetation clearance. He’s also requiring that executive bonuses be tied to safety management, and continuing mandatory power shutoffs on windy days when there’s high fire danger.

The case is U.S. v. Pacific Gas and Electric Company, 14-cr-00175, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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