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California lawmakers in no hurry to help PG&E as utility faces insolvency

by John Wildermuth and J.D. Morris, San Francisco Chronicle |

SACRAMENTO — For California politicians, Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s announcement that it plans to declare bankruptcy was cause for concern, but not panic.

“It’s time to take a few steps back,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, a longtime critic of the utility. “We need to look at the pluses and minuses of bankruptcy and also look at other options.”

Lawmakers said the 15-day notice of an impending bankruptcy filing that PG&E gave to its employees Monday provides time for the Legislature to look at whether it should try to help the company and, if so, how. There was little evidence that lawmakers were eager to commit to bailing out the utility.

“I don’t anticipate PG&E will be coming to us for relief,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco. “They need to come to us with a plan.”

A PG&E filing for protection from creditors would allow time for the company to submit a plan to a bankruptcy court judge to deal with potentially billions of dollars of liabilities arising from wildfires that its electrical lines allegedly sparked. Although it has not been determined whether PG&E lines caused the Camp Fire that killed 86 people and destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise in November, the company already is facing potentially ruinous lawsuits over the blaze.

The Legislature has already helped PG&E handle the fiscal strain of previous wildfires through a measure it passed last year, SB901, which created a process that regulators and the utility must follow before PG&E can pass along costs to customers. PG&E must first use a financial stress test to see how much of the burden it can pay on its own; then the utility can finance the rest through bonds its customers pay off over time.

But the law allows PG&E to issue such bonds only for blazes that ignited in 2017. The Legislature would have to take new action if it wanted to protect the company from Camp Fire costs.

Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, who chairs the Utilities and Energy Committee, had said he was working on legislation to extend the provisions of SB901 to 2018 fires. However, Holden hasn’t filed the bill yet, and he said Monday that he would not do so.

“Our purpose was to keep PG&E from going into bankruptcy, but that’s out the window now,” Holden said. “Now the courts are getting out in front.”

In considering any new legislation, lawmakers are likely to have one eye on the company’s financial well-being and the other on customers who could be stuck with wildfire costs and litigants hoping to recoup disaster losses.

“The horrific Camp Fire has had a devastating impact on thousands of lives, and survivors are earnestly putting their lives back together,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, whose district includes Paradise. “They are my first and only concern.”

PG&E officials gave assurances that any bankruptcy would not affect the day-to-day power services it provides. But something has to be done, they argued.

Steve Malnight, PG&E’s senior vice president of energy supply and policy, said the utility has been in frequent contact with regulators, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office and other stakeholders about the company’s “deteriorating financial condition.” He did not say what specific measures the company may push for in Sacramento this year.

“We are going to continue to keep everyone informed of where we are and the work we’re doing,” Malnight said. “It’s a little early to say exactly what will result.”

Newsom, in office for only a week, is likely to have to take the lead on any state action.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown was often content to sit back and let the Legislature struggle before coming up with his own plan and suggestions. But Newsom, even in his days as mayor of San Francisco, had a more activist bent.

At a news conference Monday evening, Newsom said he had put his chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, in charge of a team coming up with options. “This is a top priority for this administration,” he said. “This is not being pushed back in the file.”

The governor also sought to dispel any fears by customers that a bankruptcy filing would mean problems for PG&E service.

“This is not 2001. There is no energy crisis,” Newsom said, referring to PG&E Co.’s bankruptcy filing nearly 18 years ago brought on by problems with California’s energy deregulation, a debacle that led to rolling blackouts. “We’re not in a position where we’re worried about the lights turning off.”

One problem for PG&E: It will be dealing with a Legislature that has grown wary of taking utility leaders’ promises at face value.

During the debate over SB901, PG&E told the Legislature that the only alternatives were bankruptcy or a state bailout, said Hill, the San Mateo state senator. But at the same time, it turned out, the company was developing another strategy that involved raising billions by potentially selling off its gas unit and the company’s San Francisco headquarters.

PG&E’s credibility also took a hit when state regulators accused it of falsifying gas-inspection records in the years after a company gas line exploded in San Bruno in 2010, killing eight people and decimating the Crestmoor neighborhood.

“Frankly, I don’t know if you can trust what they say or what they do,” Hill said.