Capitol Alert

Electric utilities that cause wildfires should eat the costs, lawmakers say

Home destroyed in the Coffey Creek neighborhood during a wildfire in Sonoma County on Oct. 9, 2017 in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Home destroyed in the Coffey Creek neighborhood during a wildfire in Sonoma County on Oct. 9, 2017 in Santa Rosa, Calif.

As state agencies investigate the cause of the wine country fires that killed 42 people and destroyed nearly 9,000 structures, California lawmakers announced plans to introduce legislation to prevent electric utilities found responsible for wildfires from passing the cost of claims and penalties onto consumers.

Cal Fire and the California Public Utilities Commission launched investigations earlier this month to determine whether PG&E is partially responsible for the fires that reduced entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa to ash. The Bee previously reported that one of the probes is likely focused on whether inadequate trimming of vegetation and maintenance of poles caused electric lines to fall and spark during high winds.

Sen. Jerry Hill, a PG&E critic since the San Bruno pipeline explosion in his district in 2010, is among the lawmakers who are calling for an end to a common electric utility practice of recouping costs not covered by insurance through charges to ratepayers. Hill’s office said the legislation, slated for introduction when lawmakers return to Sacramento in January, will also prevent electric companies found culpable for fires from passing along the costs of fines and penalties to ratepayers.

“This practice is an outrage,” the San Mateo lawmakers said in a statement. “Victims of devastating fires and other customers should not be forced to pay for the mistakes made by utilities.”

Following major disasters, utility companies file an application with the California Public Utilities Commission to seek excess costs from ratepayers. Hill previously blocked gas companies from shifting fines and penalties onto consumers through a bill in 2011.

San Diego Gas and Electric Company is seeking to recover $379 million in costs from a trio of fires in Southern California 10 years ago that were caused by the utility’s power lines and overhead equipment. Hill’s office contends PG&E is “laying the groundwork” to recover costs from the 2015 Butte Fire, ignited by a power line that came into contract with a tree, that destroyed 549 homes in Amador and Calaveras counties.

Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, called the practice “simply unconscionable.”

“While there is an active fire investigation taking place, there is absolutely no way residents who are suffering from this massive tragedy should ever pay for a corporation’s potential negligence,” McGuire, a joint author on the bill, said in a statement.

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Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna