Legislators are debating changes to a bill that addresses who will pay for the damages caused by more than a dozen wildfires that devastated northern California in October of last year.
The amendments to AB 33, recommended by the California Senate last week, proposed that costs could be paid for via state-issued bonds. These bonds would lend PG&E money to pay for damages. In turn, PG&E will then charge its customers a "non-bypassable" fee to pay off the bonds to the state.
What all this economic jargon means is that California taxpayers would foot the bill to lend PG&E the bonds, and then PG&E would pay back the taxpayers by charging PG&E customers extra fees, all of whom are also taxpayers that lent the money in the first place.
In May and June, CAL FIRE investigators found PG&E solely responsible for 16 wildfires during the October 2017 Fire Siege, including the La Porte Fire in Butte County, the Pocket Fire in Sonoma County and the Atlas Fire in Napa County.
The Siege burned more than 245,000 acres and involved over 11,000 firefighters across 17 states to contain the blaze. But the amendments to AB33 state that although the state of California wildfire "requires immediate legislative action," a solution is not that simple.
It is therefore in the public interest to provide a mechanism that will promote timely compensation for 2017 northern California wildfire victims and equitably allocate costs for strict liability inverse condemnation and other wildfire-related claims and costs while maintaining the financial health of the utility so that it is able to continue to provide safe and reliable electric and gas service to customers at affordable rates.
While some public officials are condemning PG&E for seemingly passing the buck, legislators cite climate change, increased natural disasters and unsafe development as culpable in causing the Siege as PG&E within the bill text.
"This is ridiculous!! Call your representatives and make sure this fails," said Kanchan Charan, Chief, Division of Audits at County of Sonoma, in a Facebook post. "If this passes, PG&E will have no reason to change. Your community will continue to be in danger and you get to pay for losses. With this kind of policymaking, I might as well live in Trump country."
AB33 was sent back to committee for a vote on the Senate-proposed changes and may be a long way off before being approved by both the Senate and House.
PG&E still maintains that they met the state's standards and regulations of the management of utility infrastructure. However, since CAL FIRE's release of the investigation results, PG&E has created several new initiatives to proactively address wildfires in the state, including additions to their Wildfire Leadership team, joining local Fire Safe Councils and collaborations on extreme weather preparations.