SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) - A federal judge in San Francisco on Tuesday imposed on PG&E Co. a series of new probation conditions aimed at preventing deadly wildfires.
The conditions set by U.S. District Judge William Alsup require the utility to obey state laws and its own plan on trimming trees that could lead to fires, hire enough staff to do so, suspend shareholder dividends until that is done and submit to unannounced inspections by a monitor.
Alsup told Interim PG&E Chief Executive Officer John Simon and other utility representatives at a hearing, "I want to see you succeed and I want to see the people of California safe in their homes. I think you want that too. PG&E shouldn't be starting these fires."
The judge ordered the conditions as part of PG&E's probation in a criminal pipeline safety case in which it was convicted of violating safety regulations and obstructing a probe of a fatal natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010.
The utility has already suspended dividends since late 2017 because of its potential liability for North Bay wildfires in 2017 and the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, in which 88 people died.
PG&E is currently in a federal Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, which enables the company to freeze its debts while developing a financial reorganization plan.
PG&E said in a statement, "We share the court's commitment to safety and understand that we must play a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California."
The utility said it is centering its efforts on its new Wildfire Safety Plan, which it has submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission and to Alsup.
"As we informed the court, we remain committed to complying with all rules and regulations and working hard to keep our customers and communities safe," the statement said.
Tuesday's order, which was proposed by Alsup on March 5, is scaled back from a more drastic proposal Alsup issued in January.
In the earlier proposal, Alsup said he was considering requiring PG&E to inspect its entire electrical service area in Northern and Central California and either remove all trees that could fall on lines and repair all damaged equipment or turn off power during high winds.
PG&E responded in January that removing all trees that could bend or break over power lines in its 70,000-square-mile area would cost $100 billion and would not be feasible.
The order signed by Alsup on Tuesday delays a decision on whether the utility should be required to turn off power in vulnerable areas in high winds. PG&E and the CPUC have told the judge that turning off power except as a last resort could endanger public safety.
The utility's five-year probation was imposed by now-retired U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson during its 2017 sentencing for its 2016 conviction. After Henderson retired, Alsup took over supervising the probation.
Alsup charged during the hearing that PG&E gave shareholders several billion dollars in dividends in recent years while letting its tree-trimming budget "wither."
He said Cal Fire has found that PG&E's electrical equipment caused most of the North Bay fires in 2017.
The agency has not yet announced the cause of the fatal Butte County fire in November 2018, but PG&E has said it believes an equipment failure on a high-voltage transmission tower in the Sierra Nevada foothills will be found to have triggered the blaze.
In a separate probation matter, Alsup has found that PG&E violated an already existing condition by failing to report to its federal probation officer that it reached a $1.5 million settlement with the Butte County district attorney in connection with the Honey Fire in that county on Oct. 9, 2017. No one was injured in that fire.
The judge said he will sentence the utility for that violation at a later date. He also said he is considering extending the probation for another year because of the violation, and instructed PG&E and federal
prosecutors to submit briefs on whether he should do that.