California lawmakers weigh plan to alter utility liability
SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers raised concerns Thursday that a proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown to shield electrical utilities from some financial liability for wildfires might give them too much protection without ensuring the utilities safely maintain their equipment.
The issue of wildfire liability has been a fraught topic in the capital as massive wildfires rage across California and utilities face billions in liability for fires that devastated communities in the state last year. The lawmakers raised their concerns at a hearing on the proposal as part of a committee set up to address wildfire issues.
Current California law holds utilities responsible for damage from fires ignited by their equipment even if they have followed safety rules.
Brown's proposal would let judges decide how much utilities pay when their equipment causes wildfires. It would soften a legal standard that generally holds them entirely responsible for the costs of fires triggered by their power lines or other infrastructure.
Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes told a representative of the Brown administration that she wasn't assured utilities would be held accountable for keeping land around their infrastructure from igniting under the proposal.
"If we lower the standard, what's the incentive going to be to do those things that need to be done, for safety, for prevention?" the Grand Terrace Democrat asked a representative for the utilities.
Henry Weissman, an attorney for Southern California Edison, said utilities have a role to play in modifying their systems to reduce wildfire risk. He said under Brown's proposal, utilities would still be liable if they act negligently or unreasonably, what he called the "normal way" that businesses in California are treated.
"I would not characterize this as a bailout," said James Ralph, the Brown administration representative. "The governor's proposal holds them accountable."
Those who want to change the law fear utilities could go bankrupt or significantly raise prices for California residents as climate change makes wildfires even more severe.
Investigators have determined that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. equipment started several of the 2017 wildfires in Northern California wine country that killed 44 people. The company, which did not testify at the hearing, says it expects to pay more than $2.5 billion.
The lawmakers on the committee didn't vote on the proposal, so it's not clear exactly where they all stand on the plan. Although several expressed reservations, others showed interest in changing the liability standards in light of climate change.
Sen. Bill Dodd said any changes the Legislature makes should help prevent future wildfires and prevent ratepayers from bearing "undue" costs.
"I believe it is incumbent on this committee to take into account how the so-called new normal due to climate change may create extreme conditions and how those conditions may disrupt electrical equipment," the Napa Democrat said.