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Who Should Pay When Power Lines Ignite Destructive Blazes?

PG&E may be responsible for California's deadliest blaze - should they pay for damages?

by Countable | 11.16.18

What’s the story?

  • Wildfires in California have killed at least 63 people while 631 remain missing or unaccounted for. Though the cause of the massive Camp Fire in Northern California remains under investigation, Pacific Gas & Energy said earlier this week that it “experienced an outage” on a transmission line 15 minutes before the blaze broke out.

Lawsuit blames Camp Fire on PG&E

  • A new lawsuit blames the Camp Fire on PG&E, alleging the utility failed to properly inspect and maintain its power lines.
  • Though the cause of the Camp Fire remains under investigation, the utility company said on Tuesday that it submitted an "electric incident report" to the California Public Utilities Commission on Nov. 8, just before the fire started.
  • And on Nov. 5, PG&E's CEO told stockholders she'd renew the utility's drive to change the California state policy of "inverse condemnation," which holds utilities responsible for any damage done by their equipment—even if they haven't done anything intentionally wrong.

PG&E's responsibility - or not

  • Stocks for PG&E had plunged on Thursday over concerns that the utility, if found responsible, would go bankrupt paying off its liabilities. But the stock rebounded Friday after the president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) indicated that the state would work with the utility to ensure it wouldn’t be crippled by lawsuits.
  • "An essential component of providing safe electrical service is the financial wherewithal to carry out safety measures," CPUC President Michael Picker said in a statement.
  • Picker also noted that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill last year where, as CNN explained, “the CPUC is now required to consider a utility's finances when determining the maximum amount it can pay without harming customers when evaluating damages caused by wildfires.”
  • When that bill was being considered, PG&E had argued that the real culprit in wildfires is climate change. They said that as a shifting climate makes wildfires more frequent and severe, utilities won’t be able to survive financially if they’re always held liable for damages.
  • "California's existing liabilities laws weren't made for the new normal that we face going forward with these climate driven wildfires," said Steve Malnight, a senior vice president at PG&E. "It's creating really significant financial risk to the utilities which will limit our ability to continue making the investments we need going forward."

What do you think?

Wildfires are burning across the California. Who should be held responsible for their damage? Are they the result of a changing climate? Hit Take Action and tell your reps, then share your thoughts below.

—Josh Herman

(Photo Credit: @ForestServiceNW via Twitter)

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