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‘License to burn?’ | California government approves PG&E safety certificate

Despite 91 felonies and two pending criminal investigations of wildfires blamed on PG&E, state regulators officially called it "safe." The reason involves money.

SACRAMENTO, Calif — The five voting members of California’s Public Utilities Commission effectively certified PG&E as an officially “safe” utility Thursday, under a 2019 law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The CPUC granted the electric monopoly a 2021 state safety certificate even though PG&E was charged this month with 33 crimes in Sonoma County for sparking the 2019 Kincade Fire and is under investigation for possible murder charges in Shasta County because of the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people.

Multiple critics told the five CPUC commissioners Thursday that the safety certificate gives PG&E a “license to burn.”

Under the terms of AB 1054, the state law that bailed PG&E out of bankruptcy, utilities pre-certified as “safe” are not required to prove they acted reasonably to charge customers for the cost of the damage caused by the flames.

The safety certificate also gives PG&E the ability to tap into a multibillion-dollar state wildfire fund, paid for by customers, to help pay damages to fire victims-- and perhaps most importantly, it caps the amount of fire damage that PG&E shareholders would be on the hook for paying back to the fund.

After the 2018 Camp Fire, PG&E warned that it had caused around $30 billion in wildfire damage. It settled its bankruptcy for $25 billion.

"If this had been in place during the 2017, 2018, and 2019 fires, PG&E would have been on the hook for about $4 billion. Not for the tens of billions," said Nat Skinner, who leads the safety program in the CPUC's Public Advocates Office. 

The commission, headed by five gubernatorial appointees, gave pocket approval to PG&E’s safety certificate overnight on Wednesday by abruptly canceling a Thursday vote to review it.

The move had the effect of “approving the safety certificate but doing it in a gutless fashion where they won’t go on the record,” according to Mark Toney, who leads The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group that asked the commissioners to reject the certificate.

"They simply don't deserve this safety certification,” Toney said. “They are not a safe company."

PG&E pleaded guilty last year to 84 felony counts of manslaughter and one more felony for sparking the 2018 Camp Fire that killed the company’s victims.

At the time, PG&E was already convicted by a jury of six felonies in the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas explosion.

PG&E was originally granted its 2021 safety certificate in January in a letter written by the head of the CPUC’s wildfire safety division.

TURN blasted the “last-minute” decision to cancel the vote, writing that the move “denies ratepayers their constitutional right to appeal an administrative decision to the courts.”

AB 1054 “does not require the Commission to ratify” the safety certificate, CPUC director Rachel Peterson wrote in a letter to TURN on Wednesday night notifying the group that the vote was “unnecessary” and would be called off.

The CPUC did vote Thursday to put PG&E on what it calls “enhanced oversight,” a move that in effect requires PG&E to file more reports to the CPUC about how it is fixing problems it’s had meeting some of its safety goals.

NOTE: This story is a part of ABC10's FIRE - POWER - MONEY reporting project. If you have a tip that could help reveal more about California's crisis with utilities and wildfires, please contact investigative reporter Brandon Rittiman at brittiman@abc10.com.

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