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California faces fraught path out of wildfire, power crisis
By JONATHAN J. COOPER | Thu, November 14, 2019 01:18 EST
The utility that serves more than 5 million electrical customers in one of the world’s most technologically advanced areas is now faced again and again with a no-win decision: risk starting catastrophic deadly wildfires, or turn off the lights and immiserate millions of paying customers.
Pacific Gas & Electric is in bankruptcy, facing $30 billion in liabilities, billions more in needed upgrades to its system and an uncertain path to safely providing reliable power to a vast portion of California.
How that came to be is a story not of a single villain but of systemic failure by the utility’s management, the regulators who oversee it and the politicians who let it all happen. It’s a story of climate change, a housing crisis and an aging power system that, like much of the infrastructure in the U.S., has fallen into disrepair.
“There’s a ton of blame to go around here,” said Christopher Knittel, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.
The problem and its potential solutions have jumped to the top of the California political agenda. But most experts agree: Even under the best scenarios, the fires and widespread power shutoffs will be here for years to come. In the meantime, Californians will pay higher prices for less reliable energy.
“It’s not just going to be a PG&E cost, isolated from impact on the consumer,” said Matthew Cordaro, a longtime utility executive and a trustee for the Long Island Power Authority, which sustained significant damage during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “The consumer’s going to have to pay for it.”
The danger from a growing number of people living next to power lines and dry forests as the climate changes wasn’t unknown, but it wasn’t front of mind before electrical systems started a series of fires that swept through Northern California two years ago, leaving a trail of destruction and killing dozens. What seemed unthinkable was repeated just a year later, when PG&E power lines started the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
PG&E operates some 125,000 miles (200,000 kilometers) of power lines, enough to wrap around the equator five times. Much of the system traverses remote forests that are dry from years of drought and dense from a lack of logging or natural fires. California has 138 million dead trees, all of them potential fuel for fire.
Meanwhile, a shortage of housing in cities — and stiff resistance to building more — has pushed new construction into forested areas, where there are few barriers to building.
And the climate is warming. While scientists can’t blame climate change alone for any one fire, they say it contributes to drier brush, hotter temperatures and stronger winds, all of which help flames spread farther, faster. Five of the 10 largest fires and seven of the 10 most destructive have happened in the last decade. The deadliest were started by power lines.
More than half of PG&E’s 70,000 square miles (181,000 square kilometers) of service territory is designated as high risk for fires, according to the company’s wildfire mitigation plan submitted this year to the state’s utility regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission.
Operating in that environment poses challenges for any company, but PG&E has an especially checkered past.
The company neglected to maintain its systems so egregiously that it was found criminally liable for a deadly explosion in its natural gas system that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes in San Bruno, California, in 2010. It was fined and placed on probation when a jury found the company cut corners on safety and misled investigators in an attempt to cover it up.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has accused PG&E of prioritizing its shareholders and executives over the maintenance, upgrades and tree trimming that could prevent wildfires and limit the misery from intentional blackouts. The company has reported it still has 2,700 miles of outdated copper wire, which is prone to breakage and arcing, in high-risk fire zones.
“A lot of money went to dividends that should’ve gone to your trees. Get square with the people of California, who depend on you to do the job safely,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup told a PG&E lawyer during an April probation hearing, KQED News reported.
PG&E has acknowledged shortcomings in its first big power shutoff and agreed to rebate affected customers, but CEO Bill Johnson has repeatedly said the blackouts protect the public. He’s said it will take a decade to get PG&E’s system to a place where widespread blackouts aren’t necessary.
Company officials say they’ve invested $27 billion in their power system over the past decade.
For all PG&E’s faults, power companies operate in one of the most highly regulated industries in the country, their investments overseen by the CPUC, which failed to foresee the fire risk or adequately force PG&E to prepare for it.
“The PUC is tasked with overseeing PG&E and making sure they’re making decisions in the interest of the public good,” said Knittel, of MIT.
California regulators and lawmakers squandered an opportunity to impose sweeping changes on a hobbled PG&E nearly 20 years ago when the utility landed in bankruptcy court the first time, after California’s energy crisis.
Instead, after three years of wrangling, PG&E worked out a plan, much of it in secret, with a former utility industry executive, Michael Peevey, then-president of the CPUC.
Other regulators and consumer activists tried to block that deal, calling it a travesty. But after a few minor concessions, PG&E emerged from bankruptcy protection in April 2004 with a customer-backed $7.2 billion bailout that enabled it to charge abnormally high electricity rates for nearly a decade. The surcharges, designed to help PG&E recoup part of the losses that drove it into bankruptcy, cost customers an average of $1,300 to $1,700 apiece.
Bailout supporters argued customers would be able to count on safe, reliable power.
But it hasn’t turned out that way. Getting to safe, reliable power will still require billions of dollars in system upgrades and extensive tree-trimming to keep branches and trunks from blowing into power lines.
Hardening the grid also involves replacing outdated poles and power lines, and insulating, or in dangerous areas, burying lines, which can easily cost millions of dollars per mile. Weather sensors and cameras help utilities predict and track dangerous weather. Sectionalizing lines, as other California utilities have done, allow more targeted blackouts so millions aren’t left in the dark when winds pick up, as they were three times in October.
Grid hardening can help limit the frequency and the breadth of power shutoffs and wildfires, but the danger can’t be totally eliminated.
“There’s no way to completely protect the electricity grid and control all of its interactions with the environment around it,” said Ted Kury, director of energy studies for the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida. “Any place you locate power lines there’s going to be a trade-off.”
Shareholders and bondholders are competing to control the company once it emerges from bankruptcy, and there are also proposals to redesign its ownership, have cities take a stake, or more broadly overhaul regulations.
Newsom has said the regulator’s problems are in the past after his appointment of a new head of the CPUC. He’s been deeply critical of PG&E, saying the utility “as we know it cannot persist and continue.” He’s pushed the company to work through issues and get out of bankruptcy by next summer, even threatening a takeover.
PG&E’s chief executive has resisted the more ambitious restructuring proposals.
“I think the way it is structured now is the best idea for the majority of customers,” Johnson told reporters after Newsom called him to the Capitol this month.
Kris Mayes, Arizona’s former top utility regulator who now leads the Utility of the Future Center at Arizona State University, said PG&E should be broken into two or three more manageable entities, and California should shift to “performance-based regulation” that rewards utilities for things like safety, reliability, customer service or the amount of renewable energy. Utilities now are awarded a fixed profit on their investments. The need for long-distance transmission lines could be reduced by conserving energy and generating and storing more of it locally, she said.
“The utilities have been rewarded over decades for building big stuff, including these power lines that are now causing fires,” Mayes said.
Whatever route PG&E goes, it still faces extensive debt for its existing infrastructure and stiff liabilities from starting the two deadliest and most destructive wildfires on record in United States history. Those costs, and likely the cost for system upgrades, are likely to be passed to its customers.
“This is an unacceptable situation in California, and no utility should ever put its customers in harm’s way,” Mayes said. “It’s just not supposed to happen.”

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Charlottesville suit seeks to link online talk to violence
By ELANA SCHOR | Thu, November 14, 2019 03:41 EST
The white nationalist rally that took a deadly turn in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the summer of 2017 shocked Americans with its front-row view of hatred on the rise. But weeks before the violence, organizers were making preparations for the gathering in a corner of the internet.
Using a private server on a platform designed for online gaming, supporters of the rally discussed everything from restroom access to what to wear and what weapons they could legally bring (guns, knives, pepper spray) to the August rally.
Those online chats are now at the heart of a lawsuit that accuses more than two dozen individuals and entities, including white supremacists, of engaging in a violent conspiracy to violate the rights of the counterdemonstrators who gathered in Charlottesville to denounce racism and anti-Semitism.
During the weekend’s events, a neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing a woman and injuring dozens of other people.
The 11 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are using the online conversations to bolster their claim of a conspiracy.
“In many ways, social media has become the Klan den of the 21st century,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit organization funding the civil case.
In fact, the lawsuit invokes a post-Civil War federal law written to protect black Americans from oppression by the Ku Klux Klan.
The case, which the plaintiffs anticipate will go to trial sometime next year, is a bid to connect online speech by far-right groups to real-world violence.
It comes amid a string of deadly extremist attacks around the world in which the alleged killers used the internet to share their views or signal their intentions. Those attacks include the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last year that left 11 people dead and the slaughter of 51 people at two New Zealand mosques in March.
The Charlottesville plaintiffs, most of whom took part in the counterdemonstrations, are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as well as an injunction limiting the defendants’ behavior.
The lawsuit cites more than 40 channels organizers used on the online platform Discord to orchestrate their weekend rally. The online conversations were initially released by a left-leaning website called Unicorn Riot.
One defendant in the case, according to the lawsuit, vowed online that he would “come barehanded and barefisted,” adding, “My guys will be ready with lots of nifty equipment.”
The online planning and promotion of the rally show that “what happened there is no accident,” Spitalnick said.
A Discord spokesman said the company is cooperating with all requests related to the case, adding, “We have a zero-tolerance approach to activities that violate our community guidelines and take immediate action when we become aware of it.”
The defendants, who include white nationalist Richard Spencer, a leader of the rally, have denied involvement in or endorsement of any illegal behavior. Attorneys for the defendants have said they acted in self-defense and described the online conversations as “lawful event planning.”
They have argued, too, that the rally was protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Four attorneys representing defendants in the case did not return requests for comment.
During the weekend of violence, hundreds of neo-Nazis and white nationalists descended on Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. They marched through town wielding torches and shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. Skirmishes broke out before the deadly car attack.
The driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr., was convicted of murder and hate crimes and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. He is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Norman Moon mostly rejected defendants’ request to throw out the case.
But he signaled to the plaintiffs that they should not seek to “label everyone at the rally (and for that matter on the internet) who disagreed with them as co-conspirators.”
One of the defendants, white nationalist Christopher Cantwell, was dropped by his attorneys, who cited his failure to pay bills and an anti-Semitic threat he was accused of making against a lead plaintiffs’ lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, who helped argue the Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage. Cantwell denied his rhetoric constituted a threat.
In a historic lawsuit in 1987, the Southern Poverty Law Center won $7 million over the killing of a black teenager, a verdict that sent an Alabama Klan organization into bankruptcy.
Whatever financial or symbolic effect the Charlottesville case ultimately has on white nationalist leaders, its potential to deter them from planning violence on the internet may be limited.
Extremists have migrated among multiple online platforms, even after getting ejected from mainstream sites such as Twitter and Facebook. And encrypted platforms give them a means of organizing anonymously, said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Still, “even if it’s not going to fundamentally change the way white supremacists operate online and how that evolves,” Segal said of the lawsuit, “it’s something to be said to hold people accountable for a seminal moment of hate in this country.”
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This story has been corrected to show that the victim of the car attack was not Jewish.
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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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Hong Kong police say protesters out of control, deny curfew
By PATRICK QUINN and KEN MORITSUGU | 11:27 EST
HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police warned protesters Thursday that they were moving “one step closer to terrorism” by sinking the city into chaos, as riot squads skirmished with militant students at major universities.
China’s leader said ending the violence and restoring order are Hong Kong’s most pressing task, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
President Xi Jinping, who is attending the BRICS summit in Brazil, said his government would continue to firmly support Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, the police and the courts in “severely punishing the violent criminals.”
Police spokesman Tse Chun-chung denied his department had been asked to enforce a possible curfew this weekend. A Chinese state media outlet later deleted its tweet saying authorities were considering a weekend curfew.
The Hong Kong government, in a short statement, also called the curfew rumors “totally unfounded.”
“The force is certainly capable and determined to control Hong Kong’s social unrest at the moment,” Tse said. “We welcome any new measures that can help us to achieve the goal of restoring the public safety and order in Hong Kong.”
In unusually harsh language, Tse said students were turning university campuses into “weapons factories” and a “hotbed” of crime.
“Their acts are another step closer to terrorism,” Tse said, warning of a major disaster if gasoline bombs stored on campuses were to catch fire.
He said violence that broke out this week at Chinese University of Hong Kong is spreading to other campuses “like a cancer cell,” mentioning specifically Hong Kong University and Baptist University.
“It’s time to wake up. No society can tolerate this much senseless violence,” he said.
With no end to the protests in sight, the beleaguered police force is appointing a group of prison guards as special constables.
Up to 100 officers from the Correctional Services Department who are already familiar with anti-riot equipment will be given additional training and deployed mainly to guard government premises.
“The ongoing riots over the past few months, with their massive scale, simultaneous occurrence in various districts and grave severity of violence, make it necessary to strengthen the support for the police’s front-line officers,” a statement from the police spokesman’s office said.
Residents endured a fourth day of traffic snarls and mass transit disruptions as protesters closed some main roads and rail networks.
Police said protesters shot several arrows at them near Hong Kong Polytechnic University. No officers were injured, and six arrows were seized at the scene, police said.
Life in this city of 7.5 million has been strained as thousands of commuters have been unable to get to work or endured lengthy commutes.
The government appealed for employers to show flexibility. “For staff who cannot report for duty on time on account of conditions in road traffic or public transport services, employers should give due consideration to the circumstances,” a statement said.
A business and high-end retail district in the center of the city was once again taken over by protesters at lunchtime, as it has been every day since Monday. Office workers watched from the sidewalks and overpasses as protesters littered the streets with bricks and other items to block traffic and police.
At one point, a group of police swooped in and kicked the bricks to the curb along one major thoroughfare, but the standoff continued.
The Education Bureau extended the suspension of classes for kindergarten to high school students until Monday. It ordered schools to remain open, though, to handle children whose parents need to send them to school.
Protesters have hurled gasoline bombs and thrown objects off bridges onto roads below during clashes at campuses this week. The Chinese University of Hong Kong suspended classes for the rest of the year, and others asked students to switch to online learning.
Students at Chinese University, site of some of the fiercest clashes where students hurled more than 400 firebombs at police on Tuesday, have barricaded themselves in the suburban campus.
Early Thursday they used chainsaws to drop trees onto streets around the campus and prepared for a possible confrontation with police, who were not intervening.
A major rail line connecting Kowloon to mainland China was closed for a second day and five major underground stations were shut along with seven light rail routes, the Transport Department announced.
“Road-based transport services have been seriously affected this morning due to continued road blockages and damage to road facilities. In view of safety concerns and uncertain road conditions, buses can only provide limited services,” the department said.
One of the main cross-harbor tunnels connecting Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and the rest of the city was closed after protesters set some of the toll booths on fire Wednesday night.
Traffic was also disrupted because protesters have destroyed at least 240 traffic lights around the city.
Anti-government protests have riven Hong Kong, and divided its people, for more than five months.
The movement began over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. Activists saw it as another sign of an erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms, which China promised would be maintained for 50 years under a “one nation, two systems” principle when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997.

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Turkey deports American IS suspect stuck at Greek border
10:24 EST
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — An American man suspected of being a member of the Islamic State group is being repatriated to the United States after spending three days in a no man’s land between Turkey and Greece, Turkey’s Interior Ministry said Thursday.
The United States agreed to take him in and will provide him with travel documents, the ministry said, adding that the repatriation was underway.
The move comes a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington.
The man was stuck in the heavily militarized border zone after Turkey tried to expel him to Greece on Monday but Athens refused him entry. Turkish media have identified him as 39-year-old Mohammad Darwis B. and said he was an American citizen of Jordanian background.
The Ministry said Thursday the man had asked to be deported to a “third country” and chose Greece.
He had been spotted in the no man’s land for three straight days. Media reports said Turkish authorities allowed him to spend the night in a vehicle, where he was fed.
Turkey has engaged in a new push to deport foreign IS members who are held in Turkish prisons or in Syria, since it invaded parts of northeast Syria to drive away Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers to be terrorists from a border area.
Turkey’s Interior Ministry on Thursday expelled seven German and one British IS suspects to Berlin and London. The state-run Anadolu Agency said two men, four women and an infant were transported onto the tarmac at Istanbul Airport in a vehicle belonging to Turkey’s migration agency and boarded a plane bound for Berlin.
There was no information on their identities.
Three foreign IS suspects — from the United States, Denmark and Germany — were deported on Monday.
Turkey also plans to soon deport other alleged IS members, including two Irish and 11 French citizens.
Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry also said Thursday that a wanted IS suspect was detained by anti-terrorism police in a raid in Istanbul after he illegally crossed into Turkey from Syria. The ministry said the man, whom it identified as Mevlut Cuskun, was being questioned by police.

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After 20 years, Washington tribe hopes to hunt whales again
By GENE JOHNSON | Thu, November 14, 2019 07:50 EST
SEATTLE (AP) — Patrick DePoe was in high school the last time his Native American tribe in Washington state was allowed to hunt whales. He was on a canoe that greeted the crew towing in the body of a gray whale. His shop class worked to clean the bones and reassemble the skeleton, which hangs in a tribal museum.
Two decades later, he and the Makah Tribe — the only American Indians with a treaty right to hunt whales — are still waiting for government permission to hunt again as their people historically did. The tribe, in the remote northwest corner of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, hopes to use the whales for food and to make handicrafts, artwork and tools they can sell.
The tribe’s plans have been tied up in legal fights and layers of scientific review. The next step is a weeklong administrative hearing that began Thursday in Seattle. Whatever the result, it’s likely to be stuck in further court challenges, with animal rights activists vowing to block the practice they call unnecessary and barbaric.
“It shouldn’t have taken 20 years to be where we’re at now,” said DePoe, a tribal council member. “People ask how it makes me feel. I want to ask, ‘How does it make you feel that this is the process we’re having to go through to exercise a right that’s already been agreed upon?’ It’s a treaty right. It’s settled law.”
In 1855, the Makah, a tribe that now numbers about 1,500, turned over 470 square miles (1,217 square kilometers) of land to the U.S. under a treaty that promised them the “right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds.” They killed whales until the 1920s, giving it up because commercial whaling had devastated gray whale populations.
By 1994, gray whales in the eastern Pacific Ocean had rebounded and they were removed from the endangered species list. Seeing an opportunity to reclaim its heritage, the tribe announced plans to hunt again.
The Makah trained for months in the ancient ways of whaling and received the blessing of federal officials and the International Whaling Commission. They took to the water in 1998 but didn’t succeed until the next year, when they harpooned a gray whale from a hand-carved cedar canoe. A tribal member in a motorized support boat killed it with a high-powered rifle to minimize its suffering.
The hunts drew protests from animal rights activists, who sometimes threw smoke bombs at the whalers and sprayed fire extinguishers into their faces. Others veered motorboats between the whales and the tribal canoes to interfere with the hunt. Authorities seized several vessels and made arrests.
After animal rights groups sued, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned federal approval of the tribe’s whaling plans. The court found that the tribe needed to obtain a waiver under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Eleven Alaska Native communities in the Arctic have such a waiver for subsistence hunts, allowing them to kill bowhead whales — even though bowheads are listed as endangered.
The Makah tribe applied for a waiver in 2005. The process repeatedly stalled as new scientific information about the whales and the health of their population was uncovered.
Some of the Makah whalers became so frustrated with the delays that they went on a rogue hunt in 2007, killing a gray whale that got away from them and sank. They were convicted in federal court.
NOAA Fisheries has proposed regulations allowing the tribe to harvest 20 whales over a decade, with limits on the timing of the hunts to minimize the chance of killing endangered Western Pacific gray whales.
The population of Eastern Pacific gray whales, which number about 27,000, is strong, despite a recent die-off that has resulted in hundreds washing up on West Coast beaches, federal scientists say.
The hearing that began Thursday will focus on highly technical arguments about whether the tribe meets the requirements for a waiver.
“There isn’t a big conservation issue here,” said Donna Darm, a retired NOAA official who began working on the issue in 2005 and still does as a contractor.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Animal Welfare Institute oppose the hunts. They argue that NOAA’s environmental review has been inadequate, it’s not clear to what extent the whales’ recent die-off has hurt the population, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act may have voided the tribe’s treaty right.
They also say the tribe cannot claim a subsistence or cultural need to hunt after so many decades.
“The Makah’s family and tribal traditions and rituals associated with its whaling history can continue without the resumption of whaling,” the Animal Welfare Institute said in a statement Thursday. “The Makah could, if it chooses, attract and educate untold numbers of visitors to its lands by promoting nonlethal use of whales through whale watching.”
DePoe chafes at outside groups dictating what his tribe’s culture requires. He recalled the pride he felt when the Makah crew succeeded, the joy of sharing the feast and the taste of the whale meat.
“I have a little brother who’s in his 20s,” DePoe said. “He doesn’t remember it. I’m hoping one day he can experience that.”
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Follow Gene Johnson at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle

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