Brown: No special fire, storm investigations needed
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown does not believe any special investigations are needed into the roles of the state-authorized electric companies in last summer's wildfires and this year's severe winter weather storm.
The unprecedented dual disasters cost lives, damaged properties and upended the daily routines of countless Oregonians. Officially-franchised utility companies like Portland General Electric and Pacific Power & Light were on the front lines, suspected of unintentionally starting at least one fire with failed power line and admittedly struggling to restore service during and after the winter storm. PGE reports 331 miles of transmission lines, 240 feeder lines, 20 substations and up to 1,600 were damaged by heavy ice since Feb. 11.
Some state agencies are required to review such incidents, including the Public Utility Commission that franchises public utility companies. The Oregon Legislature and Oregon Department of Forestry are already looking into last summer's fires.
In response to a question from the Portland Tribune, Brown's office said the Oregon governor does not believe any other reviews are necessary.
"There are thorough ongoing investigations to determine the exact cause of the September 2020 wildfires, including any role that downed power lines may have played, as well as any responsibility utilities may bear. We also expect there to be a thorough investigation into the response to this month's winter storm, and we will look to the results of that investigation before we consider further action. Moving forward, there will be opportunities for the Public Utility Commission, the Legislature and others to examine changes that can be made to help mitigate the impacts of severe weather events. The increasing frequency of unprecedented severe weather events in Oregon only underlines the need for urgency as we continue to take action to address climate change," Brown's Deputy Communications Director Charles Boyle told the Portland Tribune.
According to Boyle, the existing investigations include a forestry department review of the wildfire causes on state lands.
The public utility commission said the extent of its review into the winter storm is undecided. The agency and the utility companies spent the past week focusing on restoring power to those without it.
"Currently the PUC staff is also focused on the restoration efforts to ensure Oregonians get their service restored as soon as possible. Once the restoration efforts are complete, the PUC will dedicate resources to evaluate this series of weather events and the resulting outages that impacted so many Oregonians," PUC Public Information Officer Kandi Young said in response to a question from Pamplin Media Group.
PGE president and CEO Maria Pope declined to endorse a more extensive review when asked about that possibility during a Thursday, Feb. 18, morning press conference. Instead, Pope called it "a good question" and promised her company would review its preparations and responses to the storm after power has been fully restored.
"We seek to learn from every event," Pope said.
The Oregon Legislature does not currently intend to look into the utility company's preparations and responses to the storm.
"We're not calling any hearings and probably won't," said Oregon state Sen. Lee Beyer, the chair of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, who previously served on the PUC.
At the very least, the PUC will conduct what is called a "prudence review." They happen when utility companies seek to invest capital in repairing their systems. PGE and other electric utility companies sustained substantial damages during the storm.
During such reviews, other stakeholders are allowed to participate by submitting requests for information and making their own recommendations. They will include the Citizens' Utility Board, which was formed to represent consumers before the PUC.
"It can be a robust process," said CUB Executive Director Bob Jenks.
A previous Portland Tribune story on the issue can be found here.
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