PG&E boss faces lawmakers as new California blackouts loom

PG&E boss faces lawmakers as new California blackouts loom

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The CEO of the nation’s largest utility faced angry California lawmakers Monday over the company’s decision to turn off power for millions of people to prevent its outdated equipment from starting wildfires.

The hearing comes as Pacific Gas & Electric plans another deliberate blackout this week to prevent strong winds from toppling its power lines and igniting blazes.

Lawmakers have repeatedly criticized the bankrupt company for leaving millions of people in the dark for days at a time during dry, windy weather last month.

Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. CEO Bill Johnson was set to testify during the legislative oversight hearing at the state capitol. Johnson has defended the company’s actions as “well planned and executed,” arguing the power shutoffs have saved lives during the lengthy wildfire season.

In a statement, Johnson said that the shutoffs were “the right call in terms of safety and reduction of fire risk. I also believe that there were elements of the process that did not work well, and the criticism is deserved.” He said the company wants to improve the process and welcomes outside review.

Public officials have criticized the shutoffs for being too broad and poorly executed. Last week, state regulars launched a formal investigation.

Lawmakers were very critical of PG&E in opening statements Monday, with Sen. Scott Wiener saying, “We are in a state of emergency.”

“This company, in my mind, has forfeited it’s right to operate as an investor-owned utility,” the San Francisco Democrat said.

Meanwhile, people in Northern California were bracing for more outages. PG&E has started notifying customers in parts of 22 counties that it may turn off electricity Wednesday because of strong winds that could spark wildfires.

The latest planned blackout is expected to affect 660,000 people throughout Northern California, including the San Francisco suburbs, Sierra Nevada foothills and wine country.

PG&E is trying to emerge from bankruptcy after its equipment sparked the most devastating wildfire in California history last year, destroying roughly 19,000 buildings and killing 85 people. The company filed for bankruptcy in January after facing potential damages of up to $30 billion.

Preemptive power shutoffs are not new to California, but the scope of those by PG&E this year have been unprecedented. The company has more than 5 million customers in Northern California, including the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. It operates about 125,000 miles (200,000 kilometres) of power lines, including many in dry, dense forests that act as fuel for fires.

Lawmakers have set a June 30 deadline for PG&E to emerge from bankruptcy or else forfeit participation in a fund designed to help cover damages from future wildfires. But negotiations have bogged down as shareholders and creditors battle in bankruptcy court over the future of the company.

A federal bankruptcy judge has appointed a mediator to try to resolve the case. But Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has threatened to intervene if the company can’t reach an agreement by June 30, including a potential state takeover.

California’s other large investor-owned utilities — San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — also preemptively shut off power this year to prevent wildfires. But their shutoffs affected far fewer people and did not last as long.

Sen. Henry Stern questioned an Edison executive, saying his grandmother had her power shut off without warning and has medications that need to stay refrigerated.

Lawmakers also are scheduled to question several top officials from the Newsom administration, including Ana Matosantos, Newsom’s newly appointed “energy czar,” and Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Others scheduled to testify include public school superintendents, local government leaders, business owners and advocates for the elderly and medically vulnerable.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19.  (File photo)
Gov’t reports two more COVID-19 deaths in Red Deer on Sunday

Nineteen new deaths, including two in Red Deer, were reported by the… Continue reading

Andre Lemus, the owner of Las Palmeras in Red Deer, says he hopes in-person dining restrictions are lifted this upcoming Thursday. (Photo courtesy www.laspalmeras.ca)
Red Deer restaurant owner hopes in-person dining restrictions are lifted Thursday

The owner of a Red Deer restaurant says business has “dropped” since… Continue reading

The Town of Ponoka and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) have ratified a new agreement, averting a strike. (File photo from Facebook)
Alberta gov’t ‘using pandemic as shield to lay off workers,’ says AUPE

The Government of Alberta’s “attacks on workers” is continuing with a new… Continue reading

Rocky Mountain House RCMP, EMS, Search and Rescue, STARS air ambulance and Alstrom Helicopters worked together to rescue a fallen ice climber Friday. (Photo contributed by Rocky Mountain House RCMP)
Rocky Mountain House RCMP help rescue fallen ice climber

Rocky Mountain RCMP helped assist a fallen ice climber Friday afternoon. At… Continue reading

Dwayne Buckle, 40 of Red Deer finished a 1,638-kilometre walk, in honour of his family. The 12-week, 82 day-journey wrapped up in Port Hardy, B.C. on Monday. Facebook photo
Red Deer man completes 1,638 km hike for cancer research

Dwayne Buckle, a Red Deer firefighter returned home Friday after his 12-week journey

A cat named Willow is shown in this recent handout photo. Victoria firefighter Capt. Tim Hanley says using a jackhammer and other home repair tools to save a cat stuck in a tiny basement drainpipe ranks as the strangest rescue call he's been on in his 20-year career. Hanley says he and three other firefighters spent more than two hours using sledgehammers and a jackhammer to break through Victoria homeowner Emma Hutchinson's concrete basement floor to free Willow, a nine-month-old kitten. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Twitter, City of Victoria
Victoria firefighters use homeowners’ jackhammer to rescue cat trapped in tiny pipe

VICTORIA — A Victoria firefighter says using a jackhammer and other home… Continue reading

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party: O’Toole

OTTAWA — Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says there is “no place… Continue reading

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage addresses the attendees while Tom Olsen, Managing Director of the Canadian Energy Centre, looks on at a press conference at SAIT in Calgary on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Fulmes
‘Morally and ethically wrong:’ Court to hear challenge to Alberta coal policy removal

First Nations, ranchers, municipal officials and environmentalists hope to persuade a judge… Continue reading

Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle arrives at Nova Scotia provincial court for a sentencing hearing in Halifax on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Canada’s spy-catching system caused delay, angst in Delisle case: former FBI official

OTTAWA — The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s former head of counter-intelligence… Continue reading

People wait to be screened before entering Little Mountain Place, a long-term care home that has had 41 residents die since a COVID-19 outbreak was declared at the facility in November in Vancouver on Sunday, January 3, 2021. Staff in long-term care homes across Canada are struggling to isolate elderly residents with dementia during COVID-19 outbreaks, accelerating the deadly spread of the virus, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Care home staff struggle to isolate dementia patients during outbreaks: experts

VANCOUVER — Staff in long-term care homes across Canada are struggling to… Continue reading

A passer by walks in High Park, in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. This workweek will kick off with what's fabled to be the most depressing day of the year, during one of the darkest eras in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
‘Blue Monday’ getting you down? Exercise may be the cure, say experts

This workweek will kick off with what’s fabled to be the most… Continue reading

Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler (26) just misses the net against goaltender Laurent Brossoit (30) during  scrimmage at their NHL training camp practice in Winnipeg, Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Jets return to practice a day after suspending workouts due to COVID concerns

WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets have returned to practice a day after… Continue reading

Most Read