Assemblymember Levine Calls for Additional Oversight, Restrictions After PG&E Pleads Guilty to Felony Manslaughter - Again

Monday, March 23, 2020

(SAN RAFAEL, CA) – Following Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)’s plea agreement today, where the company will plead guilty to felony manslaughter of 84 people resulting from the 2018 Camp Fire, Assemblymember Marc Levine (D – Marin County) demanded additional steps be taken to upgrade PG&E’s deadly infrastructure and prevent further attempts to place shareholder profit over the public’s safety.

“PG&E’s felony guilty plea for the deaths of 84 Californians is only the latest chapter in a failed company that continues to seek corporate profits over long term investments in public safety,” said Assemblymember Levine. “As PG&E works with Governor Newsom and the federal courts towards exiting Chapter 11 bankruptcy, now is the time to demand more of this utility to prevent another death at the hands of this recklessly irresponsible company.”

Earlier this year, Levine introduced a package of bills designed to increase the safety of utilities across the state. 

AB 1847 (Levine) would authorize the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to temporarily appoint a public administrator to oversee the public safety operations of PG&E or any investor owned electric utility. Under Levine’s proposal, the CPUC would conduct an independent analysis of the electrical utility’s financial health, the reliability of the utility’s infrastructure and its safety record. The public administrator would be embedded and authorized to work with electrical utility’s leadership and make decisions necessary to restore critical infrastructure, ensure that proper safety protocols are followed and increase public confidence in the utility. Once the CPUC is able to determine that an electrical utility has complied with these financial, infrastructure and safety requirements, full management responsibilities would be returned to the electrical utility.

The public administrator would have oversight authority of an electrical utility’s activities that directly impact public safety, including decisions to de-energize all or part of its distribution or transmission system to reduce the risk of a wildfire. That authority includes the option, after appropriate due diligence, of modifying a decision regarding the specific scope of a de-energization event.

The appointment of the public administrator would not exceed 180 days but the CPUC could extend that appointment beyond 180 days if it makes further findings supporting the continued need for embedded oversight.

AB 2178 (Levine) would add a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) to the list of conditions constituting a state of emergency declared by a governor or a local emergency declared by a local government. In October 2019, PG&E initiated a series of PSPS events that left millions of Californians without electricity. The unprecedented scale of these power shutoffs significantly impacted first responders and left millions of residents and small businesses scrambling to find alternative sources of electricity. Because the PSPS was a planned electrical outage, it did not meet the existing definition of emergency, delaying state and local government emergency declarations. AB 2178 will give the governor and local leaders explicit authority to declare an emergency based upon a PSPS and ensure the rapid deployment of resources needed during this type of emergency.

AB 2179 (Levine) would help local governments better prepare, coordinate, identify and protect medically vulnerable populations during a PSPS event. California’s Medical Baseline Program is a financial assistance program for residential customers who have special energy needs due to a qualifying medical condition. Because of their unique energy needs, these customers also receive additional notification and support in the event of a planned or unplanned blackout. Prior to the October 2019 PSPS events, local governments began requesting medical baseline customer contact information from PG&E in order to plan for potential evacuations or other assistance for this highly vulnerable population. At the time, PG&E refused to share this information with local governments and was ultimately forced to comply at the direction of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). 

According to Elizaveta Malashenko, Deputy Executive Director of Safety and Enforcement Policy at the CPUC, PG&E’s intentional delay in sharing medical baseline customer information, “created quite a lot of confusion in that moment, because it was already expected by these counties that they would receive this information.” 

AB 2179 would explicitly authorize PG&E or any investor owned utility to share medical baseline customer information with local governments necessary to prepare and respond to a PSPS event. This information will help local first responders better coordinate potential evacuation and shelter needs while ensuring that medically vulnerable residents receive the support and care they require during this type of emergency.  

AB 2180 (Levine) would ensure that funds designated in an electrical utility’s wildfire mitigation plan to reduce wildfire risk are actually used as specified to reduce the risk of wildfires. An audit commissioned by the CPUC in October 2019 revealed that PG&E had diverted funds from its program to reduce future wildfire risk by burying power lines and instead used those funds on what PG&E called, “higher priority system improvements.” The audit however could not verify PG&E’s claim because its managers “did not retain documents” of the diverted funds from the buried power line program. The lack of documentation notwithstanding, the audit found that the companies reduced spending “had tangible operational impacts which caused delays and additional funds to be expended for the work that was performed.”

AB 2180 would prohibit diverting more than 5% of an electrical utility’s wildfire mitigation plan allocation to other projects in the plan without the approval of the CPUC and require the retention of records to ensure that these critical funds are being spent appropriately. As California continues its fight against climate change, this measure will increase the accountability of electrical utilities to reduce the risk of future wildfires throughout the state. 

“These proposals are the beginning, not the end of the steps needed to reign in PG&E for its decades of poor management,” continued Levine. “I voted against both of PG&E’s recent bailouts because they did not go far enough to protect public safety and restrict future corporate profiteering. Even the current proposal for PG&E to exit bankruptcy only prohibits dividend payouts to shareholders for the next three years. It will take decades for the communities devastated by PG&E caused wildfires to fully recover. PG&E shareholders should not be allowed to profit one dollar until this company has taken the appropriate and sustainable actions necessary to protect the millions of California customers served by PG&E. We cannot wait for another devastating wildfire season to pass while public utilities fail to make the necessary investments needed to reduce wildfire risk. The time to act is now.”

Levine’s floor speeches opposing PG&E’s bailout bills can be found here: 

Levine opposing SB 901: https://a10.asmdc.org/video/20191217-assemblymember-levine-assails-state-utility-bailouts

Levine opposing AB 1054: https://a10.asmdc.org/video/20190712-assemblymember-levine-casts-no-vote-utilities-pge-liability-measure

AB 1847, AB 2178, AB 2179 and AB 2180 will be considered by the State Assembly later this year.

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