The head of California’s biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is blaming global warming for making large wildfires more frequent and intense as part of an ongoing public relations and lobbying campaign.
The goal of that campaign: get state lawmakers to change what utilities are liable for when their equipment cause fires.
“Climate change is no longer coming, it’s here,” PG&E CEO Geisha Williams said in an email to Bloomberg. “And we are living with it every day.”
PG&E is pioneering a campaign that could taken up by utilities across the country. Under current state law, utilities are liable for fire damages if their equipment can be tied to the blaze. Property owners can demand compensation even if the utility followed all safety regulations.
PG&E faces $17 billion in potential liabilities from devastating wildfires in northern California last year. The company’s stock plummeted in June when state officials referred 12 cases to prosecutors where power lines and equipment caused fires last year.
State officials found that “12 Northern California wildfires in the October 2017 Fire Siege were caused by electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles,” including the Atlas fire in Napa County that killed six people.
Investigators determined the 51,624-acre Atlas Fire stemmed from two locations where trees came into contact with power lines owned by PG&E. Likewise, the 36,523-acre Redwood Fire was caused by parts of trees falling into PG&E power lines. Nine people died in that fire as it destroyed 543 structures.
Face with that sort of liability, Williams is racing to save her company and her job. California Governor Jerry Brown and some state lawmakers have embraced the idea.
Brown said recent wildfires were part of a “new normal” that’s being driven by man-made global warming. Brown proposed a plan that would have courts weigh “the public benefit of the electrical infrastructure” with fire damage and determine if the utility did enough to mitigate fire risk.
That’s what Williams is pushing for. She wants a legal standard that limits utility liability if they act “reasonably” in regards to fire prevention. Under this standard, insurance companies and taxpayers would foot a bigger bill.
“No one is suggesting the utilities should get a free pass if they were negligent,” Williams said. PG&E has already paid $2.5 billion from fires in October 2017.
Critics, however, don’t want to see PG&E and others get off easy for damages caused by their equipment.
“Why should we reduce their liability and expect that they’d do more?” state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat, said on Thursday, criticizing Brown’s proposal.
“The path that you’re asking us to embark on is not constitutional,” state Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican said at a recent hearing. “And what we’re doing is creating this big cloud of hope for the utilities that we’re going to opine the way you want us to opine.”
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