California toughens PG&E oversight over wildfire safety work

April 15 (Reuters) - California officials on Thursday voted to toughen oversight of Pacific Gas & Electric, saying the utility had largely failed to perform required tree-trimming work near power lines in areas with the highest risk of wildfires.

The unanimous vote by the California Public Utilities Commission comes as the fire-prone state has stepped up scrutiny of utility efforts to mitigate wildfire risk. Climate change is fueling increasingly frequent and intense blazes in the state that are often ignited by power infrastructure.

PG&E emerged from bankruptcy less than a year ago. It had sought protection from creditors after major wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018 drove the utility's potential liabilities into the tens of billions of dollars.

PG&E completed about 1,800 miles (2,897 km) of tree-trimming in 2020, but focused that work on the least risky circuits in its system, according to a Commission document. (Click here)

"PG&E’s own reports show that a significant portion of the total miles for the 20 highest risk circuits remains unworked," according to the report.

The utility is required to prioritize work based on risk assessments it submits to regulators, the filing said.

"These were red flags," CPUC Executive Director Rachel Peterson said during a presentation to the five-member panel at its online meeting.

As part of PG&E's exit from bankruptcy, the PUC established a six-step oversight process to hold the utility accountable if it was deemed to be falling short on safety measures. The PUC first said late last year that it was investigating whether to initiate that process.

On Thursday, the commission placed the utility into the first phase of that enhanced oversight, requiring PG&E to submit a plan to correct its safety efforts within 20 days.

In a statement, PG&E said it took the PUC's action seriously and had already implemented "significant improvements" to its vegetation management program, such as improved risk modeling and stiffer oversight of work locations.

San Francisco-based PG&E serves about 16 million people in northern and central California.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Stephen Coates

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