CALIFORNIA, USA — A group of activists spent an hour with reporters via Zoom on Tuesday morning urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to deny PG&E a renewed state safety certificate, a document that protects PG&E from financial harm if it sparks more wildfires.
The activists didn’t know it yet, but their cause was already lost.
The “license to burn,” as the Reclaim Our Power campaign unaffectionately dubs the certificate, had been quietly approved the night before by the Newsom administration.
The state’s Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety posted the certificate online late Monday, writing that “PG&E has additional work to complete, but is taking steps to improve its operations and culture.”
The activists with Reclaim Our Power said they had secured a meeting with the governor’s office to argue their case against approving the certificate, a decision that had a deadline of next week.
Word that the certificate had already been approved came as a jolt.
“That’s news to us,” said organizer Pete Woiwode. “Terrible, terrible news.”
The group pointed to the fact that PG&E was convicted of 85 felonies in the 2018 Camp Fire, that a federal judge recently called PG&E a “menace to California” because probation “failed” to rehabilitate it, and that state fire investigators in January named PG&E as the cause of the massive 2021 Dixie Fire.
Those investigators don’t think the fire was an innocent mistake. They forwarded their investigation to prosecutors, which means they found probable cause that a crime was committed.
“Issuance of the safety certification does not constitute an affirmation by Energy Safety that PG&E has taken all possible steps to prevent its equipment from causing wildfires,” the state Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety wrote while officially certifying PG&E as a safe power company.
“Nor does it shield PG&E from liability or litigation,” the statement continued.
While it’s fair to say that the certificate can't stop PG&E from being sued, the document drastically limits PG&E’s financial exposure for causing damage if and when it sparks another fire.
The certificate grants PG&E a presumption that it acted reasonably if its power lines spark a fire, which means that the cost of damage can be billed to customers instead of shareholders.
The certificate also grants PG&E access to a multibillion dollar wildfire insurance fund, half of which was paid for by power customers statewide. The fund can be tapped to pay damages directly, avoiding a liability on PG&E's books.
In fact, PG&E has already written $150 million from that fund into its books on the assumption that the money can be used to pay for damage caused by the Dixie Fire, which burned more than a million acres last year.
PG&E VICTIMS LOSE $80 MILLION IN VALUE
“We want Gov. Newsom to be fighting for us, not for PG&E,” said Mary Kay Benson, a Butte County activist involved in the campaign. She pointed out that many of the people who lost homes in the Camp Fire are still living in campers because they haven’t been paid damages the company owes them.
The trust fund for 68,000 of PG&E’s past wildfire victims made more news on that front Tuesday morning.
Many PG&E creditors received all-cash payments in the company’s bankruptcy. Fire victims did not.
Half of their $13.5 billion settlement was supposed to be paid as shares of PG&E stock.
But those shares have never been worth the $6.75 billion amount advertised to the victims when they voted on the deal in bankruptcy court.
This week, a year and a half after PG&E exited bankruptcy, the trust finally sold some of the shares for the very first time.
The sale of 40 million shares raised $480 million in cash. That sale price reflects an $80 million loss in value from what victims were told to expect the shares to be worth.
On average, each PG&E victim lost $1,100 in value on this first sale of stock.
“I know there’s a lot of families in Paradise living in a fifth wheel trailer who need everything they can get,” said Steve Bradley, whose mother and aunt are both awaiting payment from the trust fund. “A thousand dollars is a lot of money to them.”
The shortage could get better or worse, depending on the sale price of the remaining shares because the deal tethered the victims’ financial futures to the performance of the company that burned them.
The trust says it will use the funds to speed up and increase payment to victims. Many have not received payments or even determinations of the value of their claims yet.
To Bradley, the stock sale is another example of how PG&E does the “bare minimum to appease the victims.”
He argues the company is counting on people to “accept less money (than the settlement amount) because something is better than nothing.”
GO DEEPER: This story is part of ABC10's FIRE - POWER - MONEY reporting project. If you have a tip that could reveal more about California's crisis with utilities and wildfires, please contact investigative reporter Brandon Rittiman at email@example.com.