USA – SAN FRANCISCO — PG&E was back in federal bankruptcy court Tuesday, working toward hammering out a process to add up all the money it may owe wildfire victims.
The utility already faces tens of thousands of outstanding claims from the victims of more than 20 wildfires, including the Adobe, Atlas, Blue, Camp, Cascade, Cherokee, Highway 37, Honey, La Porte, Lobo, Maacama, McCourtney, Norrbom, North Bay, Nuns, Oakmont/Pythian, Partrick, Pocket, Point, Potter/Redwood, Pressley, Sullivan, Sulphur and Tubbs fires.
The deadline to file a claim is still nearly two months away. Deciding those claims on a case-by-case basis would take years. That’s why PG&E and other stakeholders are working to come up with an “orderly, fair and expeditious” process to estimate the cost of all claims.
While PG&E disputes its equipment caused the Tubbs Fire, the utility has said it is willing to acknowledge it caused the other wildfires. A Cal Fire investigation found the Tubbs Fire was caused by unpermitted electrical equipment on private property, but wildfire victims’ attorneys claim PG&E is to blame. Earlier this month, Federal Judge Dennis Montali, who is overseeing PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings, said he’ll allow those victims to try their case in state court, meaning that in coming months, a jury will hear evidence about the Tubbs Fire and decide whether PG&E played a role in the fire’s cause.
The Tubbs Fire is the largest of the 2017 North Bay wildfires, with 22 deaths, 36,800 acres burned and more than 5,600 structures destroyed. Deciding whether PG&E is responsible and liable for this wildfire would make a huge difference in how much the utility may owe victims – to the tune of billions of dollars.
While PG&E acknowledges its equipment caused most of these wildfires, the utility says it’s not liable for them, that it’s not on the hook to pay victims. In court on Tuesday, some of the other stakeholder groups argued that if PG&E is going to make that claim, they’ll need to back it up with facts. A number of those groups are asking PG&E to turn over additional inspection reports, emails and other documents that may or may not show PG&E’s liability.
PG&E has estimated claims from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires could total about $14 billion. Another group has estimated it could be four times that much, around $54 billion, an amount PG&E flatly rejects.
Meanwhile, PG&E is still on track to submit by September 9 its plan to get out of bankruptcy.
The urgency in estimating the claims comes not only from the acute awareness that wildfire victims are waiting on compensation, but also from a legislative deadline set for PG&E. In July, Gov. Newsom signed AB 1054, a law establishing a $21 billion wildfire liability fund utilities can tap into to pay out the victims of future wildfires caused by their equipment. Per the law, PG&E cannot access that fund unless it gets out of bankruptcy proceedings by June 30, 2020.