As bankruptcy looms, PG&E gets both very good and very bad news

Officials at bankruptcy-bound Pacific Gas & Electric got their best news in years when a state investigation released last week concluded that the 2017 Tubbs fire in Northern California that killed 22 people was the fault of a malfunctioning generator at a private residence – not PG&E’s equipment.

That could wipe out half the $30 billion in liabilities that the state’s largest power utility feared it faces because of brutal wildfires linked to its power lines and transmission facilities over the past three years.

PG&E’s stock went up 75 percent after the Cal Fire report on Thursday before slipping 16 percent on Friday.

Former CPUC leader: Bankruptcy a ploy to win bailout

The ruling was cited in a Los Angeles Times analysis that questioned whether PG&E really needed to go into bankruptcy on Tuesday, as it had previously announced it would. Former California Public Utilities Commission President Loretta Lynch told the newspaper that the utility had “created this crisis” as part of a corporate strategy to scare the state Legislature into approving a sweeping bailout to minimize disruptions for its 16 million customers.

Yet Lynn’s view was at odds with several recent developments. Credit rating agencies only continued to see PG&E as in near-deathbed condition and last week, S&P Global Ratings downgraded the state’s other two investor-owned utilities – Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

S&P said PG&E’s travails showed the risks that California utilities face because of “inverse condemnation” – a state law which says utilities are financially liable for damages from fires caused by their equipment even if the utilities had not been found negligent.

Meanwhile, PG&E’s contentious relationship with the federal judge overseeing its probation stemming from its six felony convictions in the 2010 natural gas pipeline disaster that killed eight people in San Bruno (pictured) took a sharp turn for the worse. There is relatively little precedent for federal judges to play such oversight roles in complex cases. This had led to speculation that San Francisco-based U.S. District Judge William Alsup might be cautious in drawing conclusions after announcing in late November that he was reviewing PG&E’s role in recent wildfires in Northern California. Alsup was seen as lacking the background and experience of agencies like the CPUC and Cal Fire to evaluate the utility’s claims and evidence from wildfire sites.

Instead, the judge has already issued a preliminary ruling directly asserting that PG&E’s failure to properly insulate power conductors contributed to fire disasters in Northern California over the last two years, including the November blaze in Butte County that killed at least 85 people. A hearing is scheduled in Alsup’s courtroom Wednesday on his ruling, which could lead to the judge ordering PG&E to broadly upgrade its transmission equipment.

PG&E: Rates could go up five-fold

The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that PG&E officials believed that compliance with a far-reaching Alsup order “could cost between $75 billion and $150 billion, requiring a one-year rate hike – at the low end of the spectrum – of more than five times current rates in typical bills.”

In its formal response to Alsup’s tentative ruling, PG&E indirectly questioned his expertise. The utility wrote that it is “committed to working aggressively and expeditiously with state and federal officials on system maintenance and upgrades and on wildfire mitigation efforts.”

“But the path forward to mitigating wildfire risk is best designed not through probation conditions, but rather through careful coordination with state and federal regulators, after appropriate consultation with other interested parties, based on the best science and engineering advice, with policy analysis that accounts for the full range of important but often conflicting social goals,” PG&E concluded.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, told the Bay Area News Group that he welcomed Alsup’s actions.

“A federal judge is actually saying things and hopefully will do something about the lack of maintenance at PG&E,” he said. “No one else has required that.”

Hill, whose district includes San Bruno, has long ripped the state Public Utilities Commission for what he sees as lax oversight of PG&E.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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