California PUC failing to oversee PG&E wildfire safety

The state auditor confirmed Thursday what we long suspected: The regulators charged with overseeing PG&E are failing miserably at protecting Californians from the threat of wildfires.

Acting state Auditor Michael Tilden issued a scathing report blasting the California Public Utilities Commission and the recently formed Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety for approving the utility’s “seriously deficient” wildfire prevention plans.

PG&E has spent the past decade proving that it can’t meet the most basic of safety standards. The level of incompetence has led us to call for the state to prepare for a takeover of the utility.

Meanwhile, the regulatory oversight of PG&E has been abysmal. The audit confirms that a major overhaul of the PUC is needed. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature cannot sit idly by while Californians continue suffering the consequences of increasingly disastrous wildfires.

Tilden’s most damning criticism was aimed at the Energy Infrastructure Safety Office, established last July to ensure electric utilities reduce wildfire risk from their equipment.

The audit ripped the office for approving the wildfire mitigation plans of three major California utilities — PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — even though their plans contained serious deficiencies.

Tilden cited as an example the determination that all three plans “failed to demonstrate how they were using risk modeling to inform decision making, and thus could not demonstrate that they were targeting the highest-risk portions of the electrical grid.”

The audit also criticized the PUC for failing to use its authority to punish utilities when its own audits uncover violations.

Tilden’s report isn’t the first time the state has identified the regulator’s shortcomings.

Investigations showed that the PUC’s cozying up to PG&E contributed to the 2010 San Bruno explosion that claimed eight lives and leveled a whole neighborhood. The PUC’s failure to address its lax approach has allowed PG&E to continue putting profits before safety. That has led to wildfires that have killed more than 100 Californians and burned tens of thousands of homes during the past decade.

Five years ago, then-Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, threatened to blow up the PUC altogether before then-Gov. Jerry Brown instituted a series of measures designed to remedy the agency’s shortcomings. At the time, we argued that if the governor and Legislature really wanted reform, the measures would be just the start. The new audit shows there is still significant work to be done.

PG&E insists that it has ramped up its safety efforts since Patricia Poppe became CEO in January 2021. It’s too early to determine whether the utility has indeed turned a corner. Regardless, California needs the agency policing the utility to hold it to the highest standards. And that’s still not happening.

Reducing the threat of wildfires must be among California’s highest priorities. The state must fully investigate the PUC and overhaul the agency so that it fulfills its mission of ensuring safe, reliable utility service at reasonable rates.

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