PG&E wildfire
Image credit: AccuWeather

A US federal judge tasked with overseeing Pacific Gas &Electric’s health and safety compliance and criminal probation has eased the conditions of the California utility’s fire prevention plan.

The original plan which US district Judge William Alsup sought to impose in January was revised following the utility’s push-back – calling the conditions of the plan unrealistic.

 Alsup said he’d be willing to PG&E to suspend dividend payouts until the utility complies with state rules by trimming trees around its power lines.

The initial plan proposed had included a mandate that the entire power grid be inspected and repaired ahead of the start of the fire season in the state. P&E submitted that the inspection would cost in the region of $150 billion.

Alsup said he wants reform the management at the utility that led to the wildfires, who he slammed as “dismal”.

The judge also postponed a decision on his contentious suggestion that PG&E shut down power in high-risk areas during high winds “for a few weeks”.

Lawyers representing victims of the fires were quick critics of the revised plan. The utility has until March 22nd to contend the ruling.

 “Existing law was too lax, and PG&E was not complying with it,” said Mike Danko, a legal representative for fire victims litigating against the utility in damage-related civil suits. “The judge is now saying you have to comply with existing law. I’m not sure if it’s an answer to anything.”

Shares rose in response to the news.

PG&E, which chose to suspend its dividend in late 2017, released a statement, saying the utility is "committed to completing the work" and will strive "to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions."

The utility also recently announced the suspension of employee bonuses, affecting 14000 employees.

The company has confirmed its response will be submitted to Alsup within the time-frame stated.

PG&E paid dividends amounting to $1.9 billion dollars over the 2016-2017 period, whilst neglecting to trim or remove hazardous vegetation.

“Some of these dividends could and should have been kept and used to bring PG&E into compliance with state and federal law," wrote Alsup.

California Law

California state law has a requirement that trees and branches growing within specified ranges from power lines are removed or trimmed, and the utility responsible must also reach the objectives of their own safety plan, which is submitted to state regulators.

“PG&E’s performance with respect to vegetation management has been dismal,” noted Alsup during his ruling earlier this week. If state and federal compliance is too strict, he added “PG&E’s remedy would be to seek the relaxation of such laws through its well-oiled lobbying efforts.”

The judge has threatened criminal sanctions should PG&E fall short of its plan to ensure that no fires are caused by the utility’s equipment during 2019, as well as unannounced inspections to ensure compliance.

Alsup also postponed "for a few weeks" a decision about his hotly contested suggestion that PG&E should be required to shut off its power in fire prone areas during high winds.