Utilities shouldn’t bear damage costs alone, California wildfire report recommends

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California governor Gavin Newsom’s wildfire “strike force” published its findings on Friday. The report offers suggestions for preventing, or at least reducing, catastrophic wildfires, and for paying for the damage when they do happen. The short answer is spread the costs around.

One of the central concepts floated by the report is to change California’s strict liability standard, which requires electric and telecoms utilities to pay for all wildfire damages if their equipment is involved in starting a fire, whether or not they did something wrong. Instead, the report suggests moving to a “fault-based standard”, where “utilities pay for damage if caused by their misconduct”. If there was no bad behavior on the part of a utility, though, the cost would shift to “insurance companies and uninsured or underinsured property owners”.

Another idea is to have all investor owned electric utilities, and possibly municipal ones, to pay into a fund that would act as an insurance policy of sorts by covering catastrophic wildfire costs. One issue is that the shareholders and ratepayers of lower risk utilities, such as San Diego Gas and Electric, would, in effect, subsidise those served by utilities with higher wildfire risks, such as Pacific Gas and Electric – assuming that a post-bankruptcy PG&E can even afford to participate.

Part of the solution, the report says, is to take advantage of the “opportunity to build a new, responsible, and accountable utility for northern California” created by the bankruptcy proceeding. Although the report mentions breaking up PG&E into smaller regional companies or municipal utilities, it doesn’t say how that can be accomplished, given that federal judges – bankruptcy and criminal – will be making those decisions for the time being. The only suggestion is for the state to “actively monitor and appear in the bankruptcy proceeding” and “be heard”. So far, that seems to be having little effect.

There’s more. Besides the obligatory nod toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the report also outlines some obvious measures: reduce wildland fuel loads, improve emergency planning and education, and upgrade firefighting technology and manpower. And it takes a welcome swipe at the predatory bar, listing “attorneys representing victims” as stakeholders who need to bear some of the burden of wildfire damages, presumably by reducing the “substantial” cost of legal fees and expenses.