As fires rav­aged Cal­i­for­nia, util­i­ties lob­bied law­mak­ers for li­a­bil­ity pro­tec­tion

Centre Daily Times (Sunday) - - Weather - BY IVAN PENN

As Cal­i­for­nia’s dead­li­est wild­fire was con­sum­ing the town of Par­adise in Novem­ber, some of the state’s top power-com­pany of­fi­cials and a dozen leg­is­la­tors were at an an­nual re­treat at the Fair­mont Kea Lani re­sort on Maui. In the course of four days, they dis­cussed wild­fires – and how much re­spon­si­bil­ity the util­i­ties de­serve for the dev­as­ta­tion, if any.

It is an is­sue of in­creas­ing ur­gency as more fires are traced to equip­ment owned by Cal­i­for­nia’s in­vestor-owned util­i­ties. The largest, Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric, could ul­ti­mately have to pay home­own­ers and oth­ers an es­ti­mated $30 bil­lion for caus­ing fires over the last two years. The most dev­as­tat­ing of those, the Camp Fire, de­stroyed thou­sands of homes in Par­adise and killed at least 86 peo­ple.

Re­al­iz­ing that their po­ten­tial fire li­a­bil­ity is large enough to bank­rupt them, the util­ity com­pa­nies are spend­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars on lob­by­ing and cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. Their goal: a Cal­i­for­nia law that would al­low them to pass on the cost of wild­fires to their cus­tomers in the form of higher elec­tric­ity rates. Af­ter an ear­lier lob­by­ing push, leg­is­la­tors have al­ready voted to pro­tect the com­pa­nies from hav­ing to bear the cost of 2017 fires, and util­i­ties are seek­ing the same for 2018.

The util­ity com­pa­nies ac­knowl­edge that they may bear some re­spon­si­bil­ity but say not all of it, be­cause cli­mate change and de­vel­op­ment in re­mote ar­eas have made wild­fires more de­struc­tive. In ad­di­tion, they ar­gue that elec­tric­ity rates would go up re­gard­less of whether the state pro­tected them be­cause in­vestors and banks could grow wary of lend­ing to Cal­i­for­nia’s en­ergy sec­tor.

But pub­lic in­ter­est groups say the util­i­ties are ef­fec­tively seek­ing a bailout for mis­takes made by well-com­pen­sated ex­ec­u­tives. The util­i­ties have been fre­quently crit­i­cized, for ex­am­ple, for not trimming trees along power lines. Some pol­icy ex­perts and law­mak­ers say it might be bet­ter to break up PG&E, re­place its board and man­age­ment or con­vert it into a pub­licly owned util­ity.

JIM WIL­SON NYT

A util­ity pole smol­ders the day af­ter the Par­adise, Calif., blaze. Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric and other util­i­ties want leg­is­la­tors to let them pass on the cost of dam­ages to home­own­ers.

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