Rather than fixing its system during its five-year felony probation, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. instead spent the time, which ends today, “on a crime spree” of negligence, causing 31 wildfires, 113 deaths, thousands of lost structures and a half-million charred acres, according to the federal judge who oversaw the probation.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup minced no words expressing his disappointment and frustration in eight pages of “final comments” about the expiration of probation.
Alsup said the court “tried hard to rehabilitate” the energy giant, but had failed. PG&E, he wrote, “will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California.”
The judge lamented that the United States Attorney did not move to extend the probation, something he said he lacked authority to do on his own.
The huge, investor-owned utility serves about 5.2 million homes in California, including 4.5 million receiving natural gas, in a territory stretching to nearly Oregon and Nevada in the north and east to Kern County in the south.
The company’s probation was the result of criminal convictions related to the gas-line explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno in 2010.
“In probation, with a goal of rehabilitation in mind, we always prefer that criminal offenders learn to accept responsibility for their actions,” the judge wrote. “Sadly, during all five years of probation, PG&E has refused to accept responsibility for its actions until convenient to its cause or until it is forced to do so.”
“We are focused every day on making our system safer and pursuing our stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop.” — PG&E
Alsup also lamented that the United States Attorney did not move to extend the probation, something he said he lacked authority to do on his own. Similarly, although he writes that the state would be safer if the utility were divided in two – one for fire-prone areas and the other for the rest – as of midnight today (Jan. 25, 2022), he has no legal hold over PG&E.
PG&E, for its part, said that during probation it has become “a fundamentally safer company over the course of our probation,” in a statement issued after the judge’s comments were made public.
“We are focused every day on making our system safer and pursuing our stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop,” the company said.
The utility points to its new management and its stepped-up work clearing trees away from its high-power transmission lines as signals of its improvement. It has more than tripled what it spends on tree clearance, spending more than $1 billion a year.
Alsup, however, insisted the utility still was going too slow, and was likely seven years behind the pace he believes necessary to dramatically reduce fire risk.
“We remain trapped in a tragic era of PG&E wildfires because for decades it neglected its duties concerning hazard-tree removal and vegetation clearance,” Alsup wrote, “even though such duties were required by California’s Public Resource Code.”
“During its criminal probation,” he wrote, “virtually all of the wildfires started by PG&E distribution lines have involved hazard trees.
During its five-year probation, PG&E equipment has touched off 31 wildfires. It has pleaded guilty to 84 manslaughter charges in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County.
“PG&E has blamed global warming, drought, and bark beetles. It’s true that those things made the wildfires worse,” wrote the judge. But “those things didn’t start those fires. PG&E did that.”
“We acknowledge that we have more work to do,” said PG&E spokesman James Noonan. “PG&E’s new leadership team is intensely focused on creating a climate at PG&E where everyone and everything is always safe.”
“We all share the goal of keeping customers, communities, and our coworkers safe,” Noonan said. “We are committed to doing that work, now and in the years ahead.”
Alsup, though, remained unconvinced.
During its five-year probation, PG&E equipment has touched off 31 wildfires, he noted. It has pleaded guilty to 84 manslaughter charges in the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County. It faces five felony and 28 misdemeanor counts related to the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. It also faces involuntary manslaughter charges in the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County, and civil suits by five counties arising out of the 2021 Dixie Fire, the second largest in state history.
“PG&E has instituted some important wildfire safety reforms,” Alsup concedes. “Yet, PG&E’s swath of devastation persists.”