USA: Four California legislators on Monday said they plan to introduce a bill that would bar electric utilities from passing on to their customers the costs of wildfires caused by the companies’ negligence.
The move comes as investigators are exploring whether Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines played a role in starting this month’s Wine Country wildfires, which killed at least 43 people. And San Diego Gas and Electric Co. has asked state regulators for permission to make its customers pay some of the costs of settling lawsuits triggered by a deadly series of fires in 2007.
“This practice is an outrage,” state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said in a news release. “Victims of devastating fires and other customers should not be forced to pay for the mistakes made by utilities. It’s time to stop allowing utilities to push the burden of their negligence onto the backs of customers.”
In response, PG&E issued a statement that did not directly address the proposed legislation itself but called dealing with wildfires a statewide safety issue.
“To be clear, the investigations into these fires are still ongoing and we are
cooperating with the (California Public Utilities Commission) and Cal Fire’s reviews,” PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens said in a statement. “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.”
Hill and three other legislators — Democratic state Sens. Mike McGuire of Healdsburg and Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael — said they plan to introduce the legislation in January.
With the bill’s language still under development, it remains unclear whether it will also prohibit utility companies from making customers pay the costs of wildfires that were sparked by the equipment but were not the result of poor maintenance or other forms of negligence. Under a legal concept called “inverse condemnation,” utilities can be made to pay damages for wildfires linked to their equipment even if they followed all the applicable safety regulations.
SDG&E wants to pass on to its customers $379 million of the $2.4 billion in settlements that the company paid after three massive fires in 2007. PG&E and Southern California Edison support SDG&E’s position.
PG&E this summer also asked the California Public Utilities Commission for permission to create an account to track the company’s lawsuit costs from the 2015 Butte Fire. If the commission allows PG&E to create that account, the company could later ask for permission to incorporate some of those costs into its electric rates.