PG&E’s bank­ruptcy won’t end prob­lems from fires

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - People On The Move - By Brian Mel­ley

LOS AN­GE­LES — Big cor­po­ra­tions forced into bank­ruptcy by li­a­bil­ity law­suits of­ten take the of­fend­ing prod­uct off the mar­ket and try to move on. That’s what hap­pened with the Dalkon Shield birth con­trol de­vice, as­bestos and sil­i­cone breast im­plants.

But when the na­tion’s big­gest util­ity, Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric, comes out of bank­ruptcy, it will face the same dan­ger that put it in fi­nan­cial peril — wild­fires.

As the case makes its way through the courts, the in­dus­try and the pub­lic will be watch­ing closely to see what steps PG&E takes to con­trol its le­gal ex­po­sure to fu­ture blazes in an era in which cli­mate change is likely to make such dis­as­ters more com­mon.

Will PG&E in­vest more in pre­ven­tive main­te­nance to keep power lines from start­ing fires, adopt­ing more ag­gres­sive tree-trim­ming and brush-clear­ing prac­tices? Will it shut off the power in cer­tain ar­eas when the fire risk is high?

“Where other com­pa­nies have been able to say, ‘We’re go­ing to deal with haz­ards we caused in the past through bank­ruptcy,’ PG&E some­how has to find a so­lu­tion to the fact that Cal­i­for­nia is go­ing to have drought con­di­tions for a very long time,” said Jared El­lias, a law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Hast­ings School of Law in San Fran­cisco. “How do you solve the li­a­bil­ity cri­sis that they face?”

PG&E is the na­tion’s first util­ity forced into bank­ruptcy by po­ten­tially mas­sive le­gal bills from wild­fires. It filed for Chap­ter 11 re­or­ga­ni­za­tion last week to deal with po­ten­tially tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in claims over sev­eral dev­as­tat­ing blazes in 2017 and 2018.

The com­pany faced 750 law­suits from fire vic­tims and ex­pected hun­dreds more, Stephen Karotkin, an at­tor­ney for PG&E, said at a court hear­ing Thurs­day.

One was the na­tion’s dead­li­est, most de­struc­tive wild­fire in a cen­tury: the blaze in Novem­ber that lev­eled the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia town of Par­adise, killed at least 86 peo­ple and de­stroyed nearly 15,000 homes. The cause is still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, though PG&E had re­ported prob­lems with equip­ment near where the fire started.

PG&E was found re­spon­si­ble for 17 other fires that tore through North­ern Cal­i­for­nia since 2017.

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