Mercury News: Bill would stop utilities from passing wildfire costs onto California ratepayers

October 31, 2017

By Tracy Seipel

Four California lawmakers on Monday said they will introduce a bill to prohibit utility companies from passing fines, penalties and other costs onto their customers when their power lines cause wildfires.

The proposal comes after a Bay Area News Group story recently revealed PG&E​ is​ urging state regulators to make it easier for the company to charge ratepayers — rather than shareholders — when the utilities’ equipment is responsible for starting wildfires. PG&E is under scrutiny as authorities continue to investigate what caused this month’s deadly​ Wine Country fires.​

“This practice is an outrage,” Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said in a statement Monday. He along with Democrat Senators Mike McGuire of Healdsburg and Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Assemblyman Marc Levine of Marin County said they will push the bill when the Legislature convenes in early January.

McGuire, whose district includes communities ravaged by the wildfires this month, said the idea that residents should pay for a corporation’s potential negligence is “simply unconscionable.”

Wiener added: “You don’t burn someone’s house down and then raise their rates to help pay for the damage you caused.”

Asked to respond to the upcoming bill, PG&E spokesman Donald Cutler in an email said the utility is cooperating with reviews by Cal Fire and the California Public Utilities Commission.

“While we all want answers, we must address these climate-driven natural disasters and come together to find solutions that protect our infrastructure and keep our communities and customers safe,” said Cutler.

The cause of the North Bay fires that killed 42 people, destroyed 8,700 homes and buildings, and burned 245,000 acres has not been determined.

The Bay Area News Group reported earlier this month that records from emergency dispatchers show firefighters were sent to at least 10 different locations in Sonoma County to respond to reports of arcing power lines and exploding transformers on the night of Oct. 8 within 90 minutes of the first fire being reported.

Attempts by utilities to recoup financial losses from fines, penalties and claims not covered by insurance aren’t new.

San Diego Gas and Electric Company is seeking to recover $379 million from damage done by three wildfires in 2007. The utility’s power lines and overhead equipment were blamed for the blazes that caused two deaths, burned 200,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,300 homes.

Separately, PG&E is laying the groundwork for an application to recover costs in the 2015 Butte fire, which was caused by PG&E power lines and killed two people, burned more than 70,000 acres and destroyed 921 structures.

Gas companies are already prevented from shifting the burden of fines and penalties onto customers as a result of legislation Hill introduced after PG&E’s gas pipeline ruptured in 2010 in San Bruno. The legislation, Assembly Bill 56, was approved by the governor in 2011.

Read the article on the Mercury News website.