Quick changes to utility wildfire prevention, liability law expected in Sacramento today

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As huge wildfires burn in California and elsewhere in the West, legislative leaders and governor Jerry Brown put changes to the way utility lines are managed on a fast track at the capitol. A bill to allow for shutting off power when fire danger is high and reworking the way electric utilities are held liable for fires and ratepayers are charged for prevention efforts was sent to a conference committee on Monday.

That’s a legislative maneuver that allows legislative leaders – democrats and republicans alike – to negotiate the details of a bill amongst themselves, and then put it to a straight up or down vote in both houses.

The latest published version of senate bill 901 is largely a statement of intent, listing dozens of goals, including…

  • The Public Utilities Commission should establish fire risk reduction and mitigation standards, including protocols for disabling reclosers and deenergizing lines. All protocols should meet or exceed industry best practices. Disabling reclosers and deenergizing lines can cause impacts to fire and police response, the availability of water, hospitals, schools, evacuation centers, and other critical facilities.
  • Even when utilities operate their systems reasonably and prudently, there is an increasing risk of catastrophic losses given the changing conditions in California.
  • Due to these factors, California’s electric utilities face potentially enormous legal exposure even if the utility is not at fault or if the damages are compounded by extreme weather events or other circumstances.
  • Current legal standards should be refined to prospectively allow the courts to determine the liability of electric utilities when they have acted reasonably in installing, maintaining, and operating their transmission systems.

Investigations into last year’s northern California fire storms put responsibility largely on Pacific Gas and Electric, and Southern California Edison will likely be similarly blamed for the catastrophic fires that rampaged through its territory. Both companies potentially face many billions of dollars in liability claims and possible criminal charges, because power lines came into contact with trees during high winds. Electric utilities, publicly and privately owned, are legally responsible for trimming back vegetation and keeping their lines clear and safe.

But high winds and extreme heat seem to be increasingly common – SB 901 attributes the rising danger to climate change – and what’s worked in the past isn’t enough to prevent future fires.

Both houses of the legislature have final floor sessions scheduled for today, ahead of their month-long summer break. They’ll have to move fast today.