Big Utilities are Desperately Trying to Stick Customers for the Bills from California Wildfires

May 04, 2018

Los Angeles Times
By Michael Hiltzik

Does there exist anywhere a whinier, more petulant, more entitled gang of businesses than California's big utility companies?

PGE Corp., Edison International, and Sempra — the parents of Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric— connived in the state's misbegotten electricity deregulation program of 2000-2001, then complained bitterly about how much it cost them. PG&E tried to foist a stealth ballot measure on voters to hamstring competing public power agencies. The companies have mismanaged their nuclear power plants to the point that one of the two plants has been prematurely shut down and the other will soon be in mothballs.

And now the utilities, which earned a combined $3 billion in profits last year on nearly $41 billion in revenues, are moving on several fronts to limit their liability for wildfires sparked by their own lines or equipment. Their goal is to stick taxpayers or their customers — rather than their own shareholders — for the costs of damages resulting from those fires.

They're concerned because under the strict liability doctrine prevailing in California in cases of fire damage related to utility facilities, owners of damaged homes or property don't have to show that the fires were the result of negligence to collect from the utilities.

The causes of the most recent wildfires in California, which took 44 lives in the wine country and destroyed thousands of homes in Northern and Southern California, haven't yet been fully established. But utility equipment, including downed and live power lines, is often implicated in such events.