PG&E ‘not where we need to be’ on safety improvements, CEO says while …

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SAN FRANCISCO — Facing continued criticism and intense scrutiny in the wake of the deadly San Bruno explosion, PGE has sharply ramped up the amount of money it is spending to improve operations, safety and customer service and undertaken a hiring spree, the company’s top boss said Thursday.

“We are not where we need to be” in terms of safety improvements, said Anthony Earley, CEO of San Francisco-based Pacific Gas Electric. “But we have made a lot of progress. We hope we will make more progress.”

Despite the utility’s plans for heightened spending and hiring, a longtime PGE critic, The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, remained skeptical about how these efforts might be financed.

“TURN welcomes a more serious commitment to safety that PGE was supposed to accomplish in the past, but did not,” said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the consumer group.

Early announced Thursday that the embattled utility has decided to spend $250 million during 2012 and in 2013 on short-term operational improvements, increased safety and better customer service as a way to address issues raised by the San Bruno natural gas explosion, Earley said.

A few months ago, PGE said it would spend $200 million this year and next on the short-term upgrades.

The utility also said it hopes to reach, by the end of this year, settlements in the major civil cases following the fatal explosion in 2010.

Separately, PGE is

pursuing a settlement on fines and penalties with the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

“I continue to be optimistic that we can reach some sort of resolution,” said Earley, who met with news reporters at the company’s headquarters Thursday to reflect on his first full year as CEO.

The PUC this week has circulated a study that PGE could absorb a $2.55 billion fine. PGE said it disagreed with the study’s conclusions.

As part of the safety efforts, the company is preparing a center in San Ramon that will be an around-the-clock facility to handle natural gas operations.

That San Ramon complex, located at the Bishop Ranch business park, will have 800 to 1,000 PGE employees.

“We are hiring right now,” Earley said. “We will probably hire 1,200 to 1,400 people, mainly in our gas business.”

The financing for the hiring of the 1,400 workers will come from the utility’s ratepayers. But that could encounter some opposition from the PUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates.

“In some cases, we don’t think PGE should receive any funding from ratepayers because those were things they should have done in the past,” said Mark Pocta, program manager with the ratepayers group at the PUC. “Those are costs that should be incurred by the company’s shareholders.”

Contact George Avalos at 925-977-8477. Follow him at Twitter.com/george_avalos.

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