No deal on California wildfire liability

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Utility companies will still have to pay the full cost of wildfire damage in California, even if their infrastructure isn’t fully responsible for starting it. A July agreement to revise California’s utility liability law turned into a August stalemate, and the end of the legislative session is coming fast in Sacramento.

According to a story by CapRadio reporter Ben Adler (h/t to Scott Lay at Around the Capitol for the pointer), legislative leaders haven’t come to an agreement on how to change the state’s strict utility liability law, known as inverse condemnation…

“I think it’s safe to say that ‘inverse condemnation’ is off the table,” Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) told CapRadio Friday evening, referring to the state’s current liability law that the utilities have been fighting so hard to change. Dodd co-chairs the joint Senate-Assembly conference committee tasked with crafting wildfire preparedness and liability legislation.

Dodd’s declaration comes days after word began circling around the Capitol that lobbyists for the utilities had begun informing legislative staff and opposing lobbyists of the same thing.

Instead, Dodd says, there are “a number of other components” that lawmakers, the governor’s office, utilities and opponents of changing California’s wildfire liability law are “actively discussing.”

Pacific Gas and Electric, alone, faces a possible $12 billion tab for last year’s firestorms, and Southern California Edison is in a similar predicament. This year’s bill hasn’t even begun to be reckoned.

It’s a tough issue. Utility companies should be held accountable for their negligence and the damage that results. But under current California law, they also have to pay for everyone else’s mistakes and bad behavior. In this new era of megafires, the result might well be bankruptcy, and the disruption to utility infrastructure – electric and telecoms – that entails.

Governor Jerry Brown could call the legislature back in a special session in September. Wildfires, active and otherwise, have been a top priority for him, and for thousands of firefighters and emergency workers all summer. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for lawmakers to put in some overtime too.