by Chris Reed | December 26, 2019 5:05 pm
The June 30, 2020, deadline for Pacific Gas & Electric to emerge from bankruptcy if the giant utility wants to be eligible for a $21 billion wildfire relief fund set up by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature earlier this year may end up an unofficial deadline of another sort: for the parties interested in taking over all or part of PG&E to put forward their best plans to win over Newsom, the Legislature, Wall Street and the public.
That’s because Newsom’s announcement of his opposition to PG&E’s plan to come out of bankruptcy contains such fundamental objections that it is hard to see a possible compromise. While the governor cannot single-handedly prevent the plan from being approved by regulators and a U.S. bankruptcy judge, his opinion is sure to carry weight. Without his support, PG&E’s path out of bankruptcy is sharply complicated.
Newsom described PG&E’s proposal as being “woefully short” of the commitments needs to ensure the scandal-plagued utility is able “to provide safe, reliable and affordable service to its customers.” His critique included what seemed akin to one of the “poison pills” that the corporate world uses to make sure deals are rejected: a demand that the utility replace every member of its board of directors.
The governor’s position appears encouraging to the coalition of Northern California cities that announced in early November that they were working together to craft a plan take over PG&E operations. Those cities: San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, Hayward, Sunnyvale, Richmond, Redwood City, Petaluma, Sonoma, Windsor, Cotati, Elk Grove, Clovis, Chico, Redding, Davis, Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley and San Luis Obispo. Supervisors from San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Marin, Yolo and San Benito counties also endorsed the effort. The coalition includes local governments with about one-third of PG&E’s 16 million customers in the utility’s 70,000-square-mile service area.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo – de facto leader of the coalition – told the San Francisco Chronicle that he envisioned a electricity supplier run more like a nonprofit credit union than a government-run utility. Backers cited the Georgia Electric Membership Corp., a 501(c)(6) nonprofit that distributes energy from three power providers to 41 not-for-profit local utilities with a total of 4.4 million customers.
But another approach has the strong backing of one of the richest cities in America: San Francisco. Mayor London Breed has long been on record as saying local power infrastructure should be under local control and in September joined with City Attorney Dennis Herrera to offer PG&E $2.5 billion to buy local power lines.
The measure was quickly rejected by PG&E and appears to have little support beyond city limits. In October, the editorial page of the San Francisco Chronicle called the plan unlikely to be approved by state regulators for a basic reason: Utilities use big-city profits to keep power affordable in rural communities, and any break-up of PG&E means “the state would almost certainly have to help provide power to rural areas — likely at taxpayer expense.”
Newsom has not explained his view of what a PG&E takeover might look like, but he appears to agree with the Chronicle about the need to keep intact the basic framework of a large utility.
In October, he made headlines when he said he hoped that Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holding group considered buying the utility.
“We would love to see that interest materialize, in a more proactive, public effort,” Newsom told Bloomberg News.
While Buffett has shown no public interest in the idea of acquiring a controlling interest in California’s largest power utility, several hedge funds have been plain with their interest in taking over PG&E for nearly a year. They have drawn little support from lawmakers because of the perception they would be as indifferent to safety as the owners they hope to replace.
PG&E entered into bankruptcy in January, citing potential liabilities of $30 billion because of massive recent wildfires in recent years that have often been blamed on the utility’s poorly maintained infrastructure.
The utility believed it had crossed a huge hurdle to emerging from bankruptcy on Dec. 6 when it announced a $13.5 billion settlement of damage claims from four of the largest blazes, sending its stock price higher. Seven days later, Newsom announced his opposition to the utility’s overall plan to emerge from bankruptcy, sending the stock price down to near 52-week lows.
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