Katie Worth, Karen Pinchin, Lucie Sullivan
After sparking a series of deadly fires in Northern California and then shutting off power to millions of people in an attempt to avoid sparking more, Pacific Gas & Electric has started on an ambitious slate of upgrades that it says will drastically reduce the number of new fires sparked by its electrical equipment.
The utility giant’s leaders have said that transformation may take as long as a decade. But a detailed review of documents and hearings shows that PG&E spent the last 10 years resisting many of those very same reforms.
A FRONTLINE investigation found dozens of instances of such pushback: For instance, the company fought a proposal that it report every fire its equipment caused, describing the measure as an “unnecessary cost” of time and resources in a 2010 filing. The following year, responding to another proposal, its attorneys wrote that “PG&E does not agree that it is necessary to require a formal plan specific to fire prevention.” And for years, the Northern California company argued to regulators that it shouldn’t be held to the same standards as its Southern California counterparts, saying wind-driven fire risk in its territory was significantly lower than in Southern California.
These battles unfolded mainly within a little-publicized proceeding overseen by its regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission. In recent years, the commission has monitored the utilities’ fire safety more aggressively. But from 2008 to 2018, even as it wrote rules aimed at reducing utility wildfires, the commission didn’t have a single staff member who specialized in wildfire prevention. During that period, according to three former employees, the commission was hamstrung by too few enforcement officers and distracted by simultaneous investigations into other utility catastrophes, which allowed utility lawyers to dominate its proceedings.
In many cases, PG&E could have upgraded its systems and passed along those costs to its consumers as rate increases. After starting a devastating fire in 2018, the company filed for bankruptcy. Its exit plan, approved in June, leaves the company as much as $38 billion in debt, including $13.5 billion in compensation owed to people who lost their homes and businesses in fires over the last several years.
PG&E wasn’t the only utility that pushed back against fire-prevention regulations. California’s two other major investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, usually sided with them. But documents and interviews suggest that the vigor and persistence of PG&E’s resistance stood out.