SACRAMENTO, California — If and when the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Company emerges from bankruptcy and starts to turn a profit again, the company may find itself banned from passing any of the money it makes on to shareholders.
Calling the company's wildfire safety efforts "dismal," federal district court judge William Alsup announced a new plan to block PG&E from paying out any dividends to company shareholders until it fully complies with state and federal laws that require trees to be cut back away from power lines.
The company is trying to get the state government to protect its monopoly over a part of Northern California the size of the state of Oklahoma, but this federal judge has unilateral power to impose harsh restrictions of his own.
That's because PG&E is a convict. The company is currently serving a sentence of probation for committing six federal felonies when it blew up a neighborhood in San Bruno, killing 8 people in 2010.
Alsup recently ruled that PG&E violated the terms of its probation by failing to report a deal it made with Butte County prosecutors to avoid criminal charges for starting the 2017 Honey Fire.
The judge ripped into PG&E for arguing in a recent court filing that it was "impossible" to fully comply with those laws at any given time because of the "dynamic condition of vegetation growing in the area."
The judge pointed out that PG&E didn't offer any evidence to support the idea that the tree-cutting job was impossible, but he mocked the argument itself.
“Anyone who knows the terrain and its vegetation knows that it takes years for trees to grow to the height of PG&E’s lines,” Alsup wrote. "Regular inspections could easily spot trees that are high enough to prevent a hazard."
If PG&E thinks the safety laws are too strict, Alsup suggested that the company look to its "well-oiled lobbying efforts" and not his courtroom to address that concern.
Alsup pointed out that PG&E admitted the leading cause of fires sparked by its equipment was contact with trees, and that the company knew of nearly 4,000 trees in 2016 that were hazardous to power lines but not removed by the following year.
PG&E and state officials have until March 22 to comment on the judge's new plan. He set a hearing on the matter for April 2.
He said he wants another few weeks to make a decision about his previous proposal to order PG&E to shut off power lines during high wind.
Read the judge's proposal below:
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Survivors of California's most destructive wildfire have filed a lawsuit accusing Pacific Gas & Electric Co. of causing the massive blaze.