PG&E plans a 10-year effort to put power lines underground to reduce fire risk.
The California utility said the work would involve about 10,000 miles of its network, a project potentially costing tens of billions of dollars.,
Pacific Gas & Electric announced an ambitious plan on Wednesday to put 10,000 miles of its power lines underground to prevent the kind of wildfires that led the utility to bankruptcy court in 2019.
The project, which would involve about 10 percent of the lines currently above ground, could cost tens of billions of dollars to carry out.
The company, California’s largest electricity provider, said the work would aim first at areas most vulnerable to wildfires and expand throughout its service territory, which includes 5.5 million electric customers in Northern and Central California.
PG&E’s announcement followed a preliminary report over the last week to state regulators that its equipment may have caused the Dixie Fire, one of the state’s largest blazes, which has burned at least 85,000 acres. The fire is spreading in Butte County, where the utility’s equipment caused a fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018.
Although utilities across the country have increasingly moved their power lines underground, none have proposed a project on the scale of PG&E’s plan.
“We need you to know that we are working night and day to solve this incredible problem,” Patricia K. Poppe, chief executive of PG&E Corporation, the utility’s parent.
This year the company is putting 70 miles of lines underground, so increasing the work to 1,000 miles would be a leap. “That’s the moonshot,” Ms. Poppe said on a call with reporters. “It should be a shocking number because it’s a big goal.”
She said that the company had planned to make the announcement in a few months but that it had decided to do so now because of the growing public concern about fire safety.
Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, which represents consumers before the California Public Utilities Commission, said that reducing wildfire risk was a priority but that the utility must develop a plan that would fund the huge project without overburdening ratepayers. The project could cost $40 billion based on about $4 million per mile estimated for underground power line proposals that PG&E has submitted to state regulators, Mr. Toney said.
“We’d be living in a world where only the wealthy could afford electricity,” Mr. Toney said. “PG&E needs a plan to reduce the most risk possible at the least cost possible to ratepayers.”
Ms. Poppe said the utility hoped to get the per-mile expense down sufficiently to put the overall cost at $15 billion to $20 billion. “We can’t put a price on the risk reduction and safety,” she said.
The company said that it could install about a quarter-mile of power lines underground a day but that it aimed to increase that to 1,000 miles or more a year to prevent fires.
PG&E has been a focus of the impact of climate change since a series of record-setting wildfires began burning through Northern California in 2017, several of them caused by the utility’s equipment.
The utility has taken several steps to prevent fires, including installing equipment to monitor weather conditions and to allow lines to be shut off remotely. But the effectiveness of those efforts has increasingly come under question, particularly after the company reported that its equipment might have caused the Dixie Fire. The wildfire season has months to go before its peak.
State regulators and the courts have fined the utility billions of dollars for failing to maintain its equipment and causing fires. The company, which emerged from bankruptcy last year after amassing $30 billion in wildfire liability, pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter related to the Paradise fire.
It was the second felony conviction for the utility. In 2016, PG&E was found guilty of federal charges related to a gas pipeline explosion six years earlier in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno that killed eight people.
The Biden administration made its case on Wednesday for why multinational corporations should support an international tax agreement aimed at cracking down on tax shelters, with a top official arguing that the deal would restore order to globalization and blunt the forces of protectionism and populism that have posed a threat to business in recent years.
The comments, by Itai Grinberg, a Treasury Department official who is representing the United States in the negotiations, offered a new rationale for the agreement, which would entail the largest overhaul of the international tax system in decades. If enacted, the deal would usher in a global minimum tax of at least 15 percent and allow countries to impose new taxes on the goods and services of the largest and most profitable corporations regardless of where the companies are based.
But the Biden administration sees the agreement as more than an end to the “race to the bottom” on corporate taxes that has been a boon to tax havens.
“We believe this deal is part and parcel of restoring the foundation for the continued success of the liberal international economic order as we have known it over the last 75 years,” Mr. Grinberg, Treasury’s deputy assistant secretary for multilateral tax, told the National Association for Business Economics.
The Biden administration has been pushing for the agreement as part of its plan to raise taxes on companies in the United States without making them less competitive around the world and to get dozens of countries to drop new digital services taxes that have targeted American technology companies. More than 130 countries have signed on to a framework of the deal, which is being negotiated through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Although large companies have been anxious about the prospect of higher taxes, Mr. Grinberg argued that they had more to gain from a tax agreement. He suggested that a lack of clarity and consensus in the international tax system was leading to greater double taxation that, if left unchecked, could cause corporations to pull back cross-border investment.
“The effect of those diminished transactions would spread well beyond big companies and their shareholders, because the activity of multinationals is the backbone of the success of globalization,” Mr. Grinberg said. “And none of that would be good, because although it certainly has its flaws, globalization has brought benefits not just for multinational corporations but for people in the United States and around the world.”
The Biden administration has argued that its international tax proposals would bring more fairness to the United States and to economies around the world. They would do so, it says, by putting an end to a system that allows corporations to pay less tax than middle-class workers and by giving nations more tax revenue that they could spend on infrastructure and other public goods. Mr. Grinberg said this would be in the interest of corporations, arguing that the sense of unfairness was creating a landscape that is problematic for global businesses.
“Could globally engaged multinational business succeed if economic populism, protectionism and anti-immigrant sentiment were to become the order of the political day?” he said.
Much remains to be done between now and October, when international negotiators hope to complete the pact. Ireland, Estonia and Hungary have yet to join the agreement, and their resistance could block the European Union from moving ahead with the plan.
The Biden administration hopes that Congress will approve its proposed changes to the U.S. global minimum tax this year and that it will consider the proposal to allow other countries to tax America’s large multinational companies next year, after technical work on that plan is completed.
In his remarks, Mr. Grinberg said it was important to ensure that the agreement included a dispute resolution system and a mechanism to make sure it was binding.
“Getting it right will be an essential part of encapsulating this deal in a multilateral convention,” he said.
It turns out that inflatable rodents may be as unstoppable as their living, breathing cousins.
On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that unions can position large synthetic props like rats, often used to communicate displeasure over employment practices, near a work site even when the targeted company is not directly involved in a labor dispute.
While picketing companies that deal with employers involved in labor disputes — known as a secondary boycott — is illegal under labor law, the board ruled that the use of oversized rats, which are typically portrayed as ominous creatures with red eyes and fangs, is not a picket but a permissible effort to persuade bystanders.
Union officials had stationed the rat in question, a 12-foot-tall specimen, close to the entrance of a trade show in Elkhart, Ind., in 2018, along with two banners. One banner accused a company showcasing products there, Lippert Components, of “harboring rat contractors” — that is, doing business with contractors that do not use union labor.
Lippert argued that the rat’s use was illegal coercion because the creature was menacing and was intended to discourage people from entering the trade show. But the board found that the rat was a protected form of expression.
“Courts have consistently deemed banners and inflatable rats to fall within the realm of protected speech, rather than that of intimidation and the like,” the ruling said.
The rise of the rodents, often known as “Scabby the Rat,” dates to the early 1990s, when an Illinois-based company began manufacturing them for local unions intent on drawing attention to what they considered suspect practices, such as using nonunion labor. The company later began making other inflatable totems, like fat cats and greedy pigs, for the same purpose.
The labor relations board had previously blessed rats in a 2011 ruling. But seven years later, its general counsel, Peter B. Robb, sought to reopen the debate.
Mr. Robb, a Trump appointee, issued an internal memo in 2018 arguing that erecting a rat near an employer that was not directly involved in a labor dispute amounted to “unlawful coercion” — an attempt to disrupt the business of a neutral party. His office subsequently intervened on behalf of the companies in a handful of cases in which firms sought to block unions from deploying large inflatable paraphernalia close to their facilities.
In the case brought by Lippert, an administrative law judge ruled against the company in 2019, arguing that the rat did not amount to a picket or illegal coercion.
The judge noted that the rat and banners, which were erected by members of a local branch of the International Union of Operating Engineers, were stationary and did not create confrontation with passers-by. There was no evidence that the two union representatives present marched in front of the trade show or blocked people from entering, the judge wrote. They appeared to merely sit beside the rat.
The company appealed to the labor board in Washington, which solicited public comment last fall on whether it should modify or overturn the precedent.
But the board’s chairman, Lauren McFerran, a Democratic appointee, concluded that precedent required dismissing the complaint. Two Republican appointees indicated that they considered the precedent flawed but that banning inflatable rats would violate the First Amendment.
A lone Republican appointee, William J. Emanuel, argued that the precedent should be overturned.
A 22-year-old man was arrested in Spain on Wednesday in connection with the hack of more than 100 Twitter accounts last July, becoming the fourth person charged in the incident that led to a temporary shutdown of the social media service.
The man, Joseph O’Connor, faces charges in the United States of hacking, extortion and cyberstalking in the Twitter breach and is accused in hacks of the TikTok account of the popular creator Addison Rae Easterling and the Snapchat account of the actor Bella Thorne, the Justice Department said.
The Twitter incident began when the hackers connected last year in an online forum focused on buying and selling rare user names, some of the individuals involved told The New York Times at that time. They then broke into Twitter’s systems by tricking employees into providing login information, according to legal filings. The hackers used an administrative tool to take over accounts belonging to political figures and celebrities, including former President Barack Obama, Kanye West and Elon Musk, using the accounts to conduct a Bitcoin scam, the filings said.
Graham Ivan Clark, an 18-year-old who prosecutors said was the “mastermind” of the Twitter hack, pleaded guilty to fraud charges in March in a Florida court and agreed to serve three years in juvenile prison. Two others, Mason Sheppard and Nima Fazeli, were arrested and accused of serving as middlemen for Mr. Clark to sell the Twitter accounts.
Mr. O’Connor was a well-known figure among hackers dealing in user names, going by the name “PlugWalkJoe.” According to chat logs that the hackers shared with The New York Times last July, Mr. O’Connor interacted with the group briefly, acquiring the Twitter handle @6.
At the time, Mr. O’Connor denied involvement in the Bitcoin scam. “I don’t care,” he said in an interview. “They can come arrest me. I would laugh at them. I haven’t done anything.”
According to an affidavit submitted by an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who investigated the breach, Twitter’s logs showed that a Twitter account belonging to Mr. O’Connor viewed several accounts, as though shopping, during the hack.
Ms. Thorne’s Snapchat account was compromised in June 2019, according to the affidavit. The hacker threatened to release nude photos found on the account unless Ms. Thorne posted a tweet thanking him for returning her account, the affidavit said.
Instead, Ms. Thorne posted the images on Twitter. “I feel gross, I feel watched, I feel someone has taken something from me,” she wrote in a statement accompanying the photos. “I can sleep tonight better knowing that I took my power back. U can’t control my life u never will.”
In June 2020, Mr. O’Connor made false police reports threatening violence at schools, restaurants, an airport and a residence in Southern California, the affidavit said. The threats were an attempt to cast scrutiny on a youth who lived in the area and had clashed with Mr. O’Connor online, the affidavit said. Mr. O’Connor also sent threatening messages and nude photos to the youth, the affidavit said.
In August, a month after the Twitter breach, hackers took over Ms. Easterling’s TikTok account, which had more than 55 million followers. In an apparent reference to Mr. O’Connor’s online moniker, her page was updated with the message “plugwalkjoe zak n crippin.”
The F.B.I. found that Ms. Easterling’s account was accessed during the hack by internet protocol addresses linked to Mr. O’Connor, the affidavit said. They also found screenshots of her account saved in Mr. O’Connor’s Snapchat, the affidavit said.
Twitter declined to comment. Representatives for Snap, TikTok, Ms. Thorne and Ms. Easterling did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mr. O’Connor, who is British, faces extradition to the United States and will face charges in Northern California. A lawyer for Mr. O’Connor could not be immediately identified.
Clearview AI is currently the target of multiple class-action lawsuits and a joint investigation by Britain and Australia. That hasn’t kept investors away.
The New York-based start-up, which scraped billions of photos from the public internet to build a facial-recognition tool used by law enforcement, closed a Series B round of $30 million this month.
The investors, though undeterred by the lawsuits, did not want to be identified. Hoan Ton-That, the company’s chief executive, said they “include institutional investors and private family offices.”
Prior investors include Peter Thiel, a tech billionaire; Kirenaga Partners, a New York-based venture capital firm; and Hal Lambert, the Texas-based creator of MAGA ETF, an investment fund that pitches itself as composed of companies that “align with Republican beliefs.”
The round includes $8.6 million that previously had been disclosed in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission and reported by Buzzfeed. The company, founded in 2017, has now raised over $38 million at a $130 million valuation.
It is not the only facial-recognition start-up to catch investors’ attention. AnyVision, an Israeli competitor, raised $235 million this month in a financing round led by SoftBank.
Clearview AI, which claims a database of three billion photos of people gathered from sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Venmo, charges law enforcement organizations subscription fees to use its product. A search of someone’s face will surface other photos of the same person with links to where they appear on the web, making it possible to identify them. More than 1,800 law enforcement agencies have used Clearview’s product, according to a leaked list of users obtained by Buzzfeed. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that Clearview AI had been used by 10 federal agencies, including the Secret Service and the F.B.I.
The company’s product has been deemed illegal in Canada, and it is being investigated by Britain and Australia for its use of citizens’ personal information. Lawsuits that have been filed against the company in the United States include one in Illinois accusing it of violating that state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, which stipulates that companies must get people’s permission to use their fingerprints or to include them in facial-recognition databases.
“We’ve had some good news in the legal battles,” Mr. Ton-That said, referring to a federal judge’s recent decision to reject a request that the company be prohibited from doing business pending the outcome of the case in Illinois. “Airbnb, Uber, PayPal all had a significant legal component to their operations. People forget about that once the company is a lot larger. Investors can see that it’s just part of doing business.”
“Clearview is here to stay,” he added.
Ford Motor and its autonomous-driving affiliate, Argo AI, have formed an alliance with Lyft in an effort to begin offering rides in self-driving cars.
Ford expects to begin operating self-driving cars in Miami through Lyft’s ride-hailing service this year. The vehicles will be outfitted with Argo’s self-driving technology but will still have someone at the steering wheel for safety.
“Going from the testing phase to a commercial service, while still using safety operators behind the wheel, is a big step,” Argo’s chief executive, Bryan Salesky, wrote in a blog post about the partnership. “But to go from there to offering driverless vehicles is an even bigger step. It requires validating that the technology is achieving a level of self-driving performance deemed safer than what we see on the streets today.”
The three companies hope to have self-driving cars operating in Austin, Texas, next year. They aim to have a few dozen cars operating in Miami and Austin and hope to have about 1,000 on the road across multiple cities within five years.
Under the partnership, Lyft will take a 2.5 percent equity stake in Argo. In return, Lyft has agreed to share data it has collected about ride-sharing operations with Ford and Argo. Ford and Volkswagen each own about 40 percent of Argo.
Waymo, the autonomous-driving company owned by Google’s parent, Alphabet, has been testing a limited driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix for several years. Argo has been testing about 150 autonomous vehicles in six American cities as well as in Germany.
Just a few years ago, automakers and technology companies expected to make rapid progress in rolling out self-driving cars. But they have found perfecting the required hardware and software to be more difficult than initially thought.
Two years ago, Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, predicted that his company would have a million self-driving taxis on the road by 2020. But it is still developing its Full Self-Driving software, and in filings to California regulators it has said that the system cannot pilot a car without a driver and that it may never reach that ability.
The global semiconductor shortage is disrupting production in the German car industry just as demand rebounds strongly from the pandemic-induced downturn.
Automakers Daimler and BMW said this week that the lack of chips had forced assembly lines to slow down or stop, cutting output by tens of thousands vehicles and leading to longer wait times for customers.
This week, BMW temporarily stopped production or cut back the number of shifts at three factories in Germany and one in Britain, as well as at factories owned by suppliers in the Netherlands and Austria that assemble vehicles under contract, the company said.
As a result, production fell short by 10,000 vehicles for the week, and there is likely to be a similar shortfall next week, a BMW spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Daimler has been trying to cope with chip scarcity by giving priority to its most expensive and most profitable models. But even they have been affected, Ola Kallenius, the chief executive, said during a conference call with journalists Wednesday.
Daimler had to briefly stop assembly lines at a plant in Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart, that produces Mercedes-Benz S-Class luxury cars as well as the new EQS electric vehicle, Mr. Kallenius said. One cause was a shutdown at a chip supplier in Malaysia.
“We could certainly have built more cars if we had more chips,” said Harald Wilhelm, the Daimler chief financial officer, adding that he could not predict when the supply of semiconductors will catch up with demand.
“We have to work with uncertainty,” Mr. Kallenius told reporters.
The semiconductor drought does not seem to have hurt profit, however. On Wednesday Daimler reported a profit for the second quarter of 3.6 billion euros, or $4.2 billion, after sales surged 44 percent to 43.5 billion euros. During the same period last year, when many showrooms were closed because of the pandemic, Daimler reported a loss of 2 billion euros.
Kenneth C. Frazier stepped down as Merck’s chief executive last month, but he has kept busy since. He remains executive chairman of the pharmaceutical giant and is a leader of OneTen, a start-up that aims to create one million jobs for Black Americans. Now, the DealBook newsletter was the first to report, he’s adding another role: venture capitalist.
Mr. Frazier will join General Catalyst as its chairman of health assurance initiatives, a new position in which he will focus on health care start-ups. It’s an area of focus for General Catalyst’s managing partner, Hemant Taneja, who recently spearheaded a $600 million fund dedicated to the sector.
Mr. Frazier was brought onboard by his friend Kenneth I. Chenault, who joined General Catalyst in 2018 as the venture firm’s chairman after retiring as American Express’s chairman and chief executive. The two first met at Harvard Law School and became among the few Black chief executives of Fortune 500 companies. The two most recently pushed hundreds of corporate leaders to publicly oppose states’ efforts to limit voting rights.
“As you can imagine, he had myriad choices about what he would do,” Mr. Chenault said of Mr. Frazier. “Clearly, our personal relationship was important, but that wouldn’t have been enough if Ken didn’t believe in the vision and what we’re trying to do in health care.”
Mr. Frazier said he had dealt with people at the “intersection between tech and life sciences” throughout his career. “These people are, in my experience, very fluent in digital technology and data science, analytics, machine learning,” he said.
But what is needed is “people who understand empathy,” he said: “We need people who have both data-led approaches as well as more human-centric approaches.”
Upon descending from his trip to the edge of space on Tuesday, Jeff Bezos, the richest person on the planet, reaffirmed his commitment to fight climate change. “We have to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future,” he told MSNBC.
Mr. Bezos says space tourism is a first step toward moving people (and heavy industry) into space to avert an energy crisis on Earth. His fellow billionaire space entrepreneurs, like Richard Branson and Elon Musk, have also said their companies are an answer to climate change: Mr. Musk wants to colonize Mars in case we ruin Earth.
Critics argue that space tourism will add to emissions rather than save the planet. But the industry is still low on the list of polluters.
The global space industry uses less than a tenth of a percent of propellant than the aviation industry does. What’s more, the amount used for rockets like those that carried Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos to space is a tiny portion of that, said Martin Ross, a scientist at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center. In a recent study, Mr. Ross found that space tourism companies could launch as many as 10,000 suborbital flights per year before the effect of their emissions on the atmosphere would begin to approach that of orbital rockets.
It is not yet understood exactly how an increasing number of rocket launches would affect the planet. The space industry is the only direct source of emissions into the stratosphere above 20 kilometers. Particles that rockets leave behind can absorb sunlight or reflect sunlight, potentially changing the climate of the stratosphere or affecting the ozone layer.
“We know it’s not a problem now,” Mr. Ross said, “but we can’t predict how much of that up-and-down you can do before it does become a problem.”
Aside from whether space tourism will contribute to climate change, there’s skepticism over space companies’ claims that they can help address it. Some say Mr. Bezos’ vision for colonizing space isn’t feasible, and Mr. Bezos himself calls it a “long-range problem.” Billionaires going to space should first consider climate disasters on Earth, critics argue.
It’s not quite fair to say Mr. Bezos has ignored these problems. Although Amazon is a major polluter, it says it aims to go carbon neutral by 2040, and Mr. Bezos has pledged $10 billion of his personal wealth to address climate change. But some say there’s a big gap in his approaches: Are moonshots only for space?
What do you think? What role can space tourism play in climate change? Let us know: email@example.com. Include your name and location and we may feature your response in a future newsletter.
Stocks rose on Wednesday, continuing their recovery from a rocky session at the beginning of the week that was propelled by fears of a resurgence coronavirus cases.
The S&P 500 index had its worst decline since May on Monday, falling 1.6 percent, but rebounded with 1.5 percent on Tuesday. The drop on Monday reflected a range of concerns about economic growth and the potential for rising Covid-19 infections to lead to the return of restrictions on travel and tourism.
The S&P 500 gained 0.8 percent on Wednesday, while the Nasdaq composite rose 0.9 percent.
The yield on 10-year Treasury notes rose to 1.30 percent from 1.23 percent.
Markets in Europe were higher. The Stoxx Europe 600 and the FTSE 100 in Britain both jumped 1.7 percent.
Oil prices rose, with the West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. crude benchmark, gaining 4.5 percent to $70.22 a barrel.
Lyft gained 5.3 percent after the company announced it will team up with Ford to begin offering rides in self-driving cars. Ford rose 2 percent.
Coca-Cola Company gained 1.3 percent after reporting better-than-expected second-quarter earnings.
The White House administration said on Tuesday that it would nominate Jonathan Kanter to be the top antitrust official at the Justice Department, a move that would add another longtime critic of Big Tech and corporate concentration to a powerful regulatory position. President Biden’s plan to appoint Mr. Kanter, an antitrust lawyer who has made a career out of representing rivals of American tech giants like Google and Facebook, signals how strongly the administration is siding with the growing field of lawmakers, researchers and regulators who say Silicon Valley has obtained outsize power over the way Americans speak with one another, buy products online and consume news.
Steve Doocy, the conservative co-host of “Fox & Friends” on Fox News, has intensified his warnings about the coronavirus. “It will save your life,” he said on Tuesday. And he’s not the only one: Sean Hannity urged viewers on Monday to “please take Covid seriously — I can’t say it enough.” Fox News has not changed overnight — other personalities have continued to issue counterpoints. But some leading Republicans have grown alarmed at the deadly toll of the virus in conservative states and districts.
Today in the On Tech newsletter, Shira Ovide writes that a Catholic official’s resignation shows the real-world consequences of practices by America’s data-harvesting industries.