PG&E Corp., suspected of starting California’s deadliest wildfire, may soon get help from state lawmakers — just not the help it most wants.
As early as Dec. 3, a lawmaker plans to introduce a bill that would give the state’s largest utility owner a way to pay off billions of dollars in potential liabilities it faces from the Camp Fire, the deadliest in state history. It killed at least 85 people, torched more than 13,600 homes and sent PG&E shares spiraling.
But lawmakers appear unlikely to give PG&E and the state’s other utilities the relief they have sought for a year: a change to rules that automatically hold the companies responsible for any fire damage tied to their equipment.
Assemblyman Chris Holden, the Democrat who plans to introduce the measure for the 2018 fires, said he’s currently unconvinced legislators need to review the rule, known as inverse condemnation, since they’ve earlier passed a package that addresses blazes starting next year.
“We laid out a 2019 strategy and we need to see how well that works, if and when we ever get back to a place of thinking we need to revisit inverse condemnation,” he said by telephone.
And as legislators grapple with the threat increasingly frequent fires pose to the state, the utilities are about to lose their most powerful ally in Sacramento, Governor Jerry Brown.
His successor, Gavin Newsom, will be sworn in Jan. 7. A bill introduced next week would need to be signed by the new governor, because the legislature will spend almost all of December and the first week of January on break. Newsom has given no indication of his view of the legislation. A spokesman for the Democrat didn’t respond to emails requesting comment.
“Governor Brown’s cachet is limited now, so I don’t know if his arm-twisting would make a difference at this point,” said state Senator Jerry Hill, who has become a fierce PG&E critic since one of the company’s natural gas pipelines exploded in his district in 2010. “It would have to be Gavin’s wish to get it done.”
State fire investigators blamed PG&E’s equipment for starting at least 17 of the wind-driven wildfires that tore through Northern California in 2017, leaving 44 people dead. Barraged by lawsuits that could cost the company more than $17 billion, PG&E and its chief executive officer, Geisha Williams, lobbied hard in Sacramento for a fix to inverse condemnation.
Under that legal doctrine, California utilities can be held liable for economic damages from wildfires sparked by their equipment even if they followed all applicable safety rules. PG&E and the other utilities argued that the system makes them the insurers of last resort in a state whose fire season, once confined to a few dry summer months, now seems to extend year-round.
The wildfire bill that emerged — SB901 — let PG&E use bonds to pay off the costs of settling 2017 fire lawsuits. But it didn’t address inverse condemnation.
A bill being drafted by Holden’s office would allow PG&E to use bonds for Camp Fire costs as well. But lawmakers interviewed by Bloomberg said they sense little interest among their colleagues in tackling inverse condemnation. Although the utilities want the system changed, insurance companies and lawyers don’t.