Soapbox

Laws must keep up with more wildfires

The sun rises through a cloud of smoke in the Rincon Ridge area in Santa Rosa after last October’s wildfires. PG&E Corp. reported a $984 million loss Thursday because of fire losses.
The sun rises through a cloud of smoke in the Rincon Ridge area in Santa Rosa after last October’s wildfires. PG&E Corp. reported a $984 million loss Thursday because of fire losses. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

We agree with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board’s position that utilities shouldn’t get a free pass if they were negligent in their practices with respect to wildfires (“ ‘New normal’ on wildfires isn’t enough reason to give utilities a free pass.”).

However, we disagree with the editorial’s assertion that there is no compelling reason to reform the state’s unsustainable policies regarding utility liability for wildfires.

 
Opinion

As the editorial acknowledges, we’re experiencing the new normal now and another fire season is upon us.

In the same way that we need to take action to make our state’s communities and infrastructure more resilient, it is critical that we address our public policies. Yesterday’s laws won’t help our state deal with the impacts of tomorrow’s increasingly frequent and intense wildfires.

Tim Fitzpatrick Headshot (002)

Without reform, energy companies will continue to face massive, essentially uninsurable risks, even when they have followed established safety and compliance rules.

Without reform, inverse condemnation threatens critical future investments in a safer and cleaner energy system by limiting a utility’s ability to finance long-term capital investments. These investments are critical, now more than ever, to build climate resiliency in the face of devastating wildfires.

To be very clear, reform would not absolve utilities from responsibility. Anybody harmed by tragic wildfires can still pursue a negligence claim against PG&E, and the California Public Utilities Commission would retain the authority to investigate a company’s conduct and deny its proposal to pass on costs to ratepayers.

With respect to the 2017 wildfires, Assembly Bill 33 would provide a low-cost method to finance the billions of dollars of damages caused by wildfires through the issuance of state bonds. It would help ensure that funds are available to fairly compensate victims in a timely way while reducing the impact on customer bills that would result from excessive financing costs. Likewise, it does not provide a free pass for utilities, as it clearly provides for the CPUC to review and reject any utility costs that are not just and reasonable.

It’s time that we come together to develop comprehensive solutions to these challenging problems. With California’s extended fire season underway, the time to act on these critical policy matters is now.

Tim Fitzpatrick is chief communications officer at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. He can be contacted at tim.fitzpatrick@pge.com.

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