Utility wildfire liability will be settled behind closed doors in Sacramento

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The California legislature took care of one key item of business before it headed out on its month long summer break on Thursday. The senate and the assembly went through the necessary motions to create a conference committee that will decide how liability for California’s continuing epidemic of wildfires will be assigned. Changes to senate bill 901, carried by senator Bill Dodd (D – Napa), will be negotiated largely out of public view over the next few weeks, and then put to a straight up or down vote – no amendments or meaningful debate allowed under normal circumstances.

Dodd says that the conference committee will hold some open meetings, but that’s legislative theater. The real work will be done in private.

That seems to worry senator Jerry Hill (D – San Mateo), who, like Dodd represents a community that’s suffered from Pacific Gas and Electric’s maintenance practices. In 2010, an exploding gas line killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno. On Thursday, Hill slammed the idea of relieving PG&E of responsibility for fire damage…

After San Diego Gas and Electric was held accountable for the 2007 San Diego wildfires, they didn’t come to the legislature trying to change liability rules. They upgraded their infrastructure, they made safety improvements, to prevent future disasters. SDG&E improved their tree trimming around power lines and de-energised lines…during the very high wind events. PG&E didn’t do these same safety improvements on their system. Recent Cal Fire reports show that they didn’t properly cut back trees near their power lines, likely violating state law in 11 of 16 fire reports released so far. So let’s be careful about the reforms that are being proposed by PG&E.

The legislature is due back in Sacramento on 6 August 2018, and the final version of SB 901 could be released then. We should get a chance to see what it says – there’s supposed to be a 72 hour waiting period between the time it’s posted and a vote is taken.