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A state wildfire commission has recommended changing the law so utilities are provided with some relief from legal liability in the event that their equipment helps cause a fire. But lawmakers are hesitant that the move would be seen as giving utilities a pass.
Fire season, which now covers much of the year in much of the state, has begun in earnest as California dries out and heats up.
State officials and utility companies are struggling to prevent the next major wildfire while still trying to deal with wildfire-related fallout from last year’s Camp Fire in Northern California. That includes grieving families, a ruined town and a bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electric.
In the past few days, PG&E began doing preventative blackouts across parts of its service territory to ensure that its equipment can’t cause or contribute to a fire when the weather turns too hot, too dry or too windy.
San Diego Gas & Electric has had an aggressive blackout program for several years, which explains in part how the company has been able to prevent destructive fires since 2007. But the company isn’t sure the streak will last. Its internal modelling suggests that eventually a fire will linked to its own operations.
The California Public Utilities Commission approved all the major utilities’ “wildfire mitigation plans” late last month. Most attention focused on PG&E’s plan, which allows for blackouts across Northern California during high-risk fire conditions. PG&E’s blackouts are likely to get more attention than SDG&E’s, though, because PG&E is a much larger company — its first blackout affected as many customers as SDG&E’s largest.
So far, there isn’t a clear appetite by state leaders to give the state’s major power companies the thing they most want out of all this: relief from legal liability in the event that their equipment helps cause a fire.
Under an unusual legal principle known as “inverse condemnation,” California power companies are responsible for damage they cause, even if they are not negligent. The liability can be enormous, hundreds of millions of dollars for San Diego Gas & Electric following the 2007 fires in San Diego and bankruptcy-inducing billions of dollars for PG&E following the Camp Fire.
A state wildfire commission has recommended changing the law so utilities aren’t at as much risk. But instead of changing the inverse condemnation laws, which would likely be seen as giving power companies a pass, lawmakers, including the governor and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, appear to be interested in first creating some kind of statewide fund to pay for wildfire-related damages.
Eight in 10 Californians are worried that wildfire-related damages are going to drive up their power bills, according to a recent poll.
Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president for government affairs, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.