California’s largest power company faces an existential crisis as it confronts the looming possibility of tens of billions of dollars in wildfire liability.
Shares of PG&E Corp. — which owns Pacific Gas & Electric Co. — sank 22.3 percent Monday before falling more than 7 percent Tuesday after reports the utility could face at least $30 billion in liability related to fires and has considered filing for bankruptcy protection or unloading its natural gas operations.
The consequences of bankruptcy or an asset sale could ripple far beyond the utility’s shareholders, some experts say, affecting 16 million Californians who depend on PG&E for energy and potentially threatening the state’s ability to meet its climate-change goals.
The utility has faced tremendous scrutiny over the past decade, starting with a 2010 gas explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno and continuing with among the deadliest and most destructive fires in state history, some of which may have been sparked by PG&E’s infrastructure. The California Public Utilities Commission is considering breaking up the company as part of an investigation into PG&E’s safety culture.
Some PG&E critics have called for a government takeover or for the massive company to be replaced by smaller, municipal utilities. But it’s far from clear that local governments across Northern and Central California have the ability or the desire to take control of PG&E’s infrastructure, and to assume the huge liabilities that running the power grid entails. And state officials aren’t likely to support a takeover because then the utility’s problems would become Sacramento’s problems instead.
“For the state to take over every bit of the wildfire liabilities is just insane,” said Mike Gatto, a former state lawmaker who led the Assembly’s utilities committee.
PG&E declined to comment on specific steps it may be considering. In an emailed statement, spokesman Andy Castagnola said the company is “reviewing structural options to best position PG&E to implement necessary changes.”
“Safety is and will continue to be our top priority as we work to determine the best path forward for all of our stakeholders. PG&E remains fully committed to helping our customers and the affected communities recover and rebuild — and to doing everything we can to reduce the risk of future wildfires,” Castagnola said.
Separately, three of the utility’s top executives responsible for electric operations, assets and transmissions are retiring this month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday. No comment was made on the timing of the departures, and the utility declined to make the executives available for interview, the Chronicle reported.
North Coast state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who co-authored a law to help the company cover wildfire-related costs, called for “systematic change … on the board of directors and in the executive suite” late last year.
The fundamental challenge in navigating a potential PG&E bankruptcy or reshuffling is that PG&E isn’t like most private companies. It’s the only entity authorized to deliver electricity to 5.4 million homes and businesses, and gas for home heating and cooking to 4.3 million customers. The company’s geographic reach spans nearly half the state, from Eureka to Bakersfield.
The Public Utilities Commission is eager to avoid a Bankruptcy Court proceeding, in which a federal judge would control the company’s fate and the interests of creditors would be placed above those of ratepayers. Commission President Michael Picker has said California won’t let PG&E go bankrupt. He compared the process of reforming the troubled company to “repairing a jetliner while it’s in flight.”