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California lawmakers give utilities a reprieve amid fire lawsuits

Utility companies push for reprieve from wildfire lawsuits

California lawmakers voted to give a reprieve to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the frenzied final hours of the two-year legislative session.

They sent Gov. Jerry Brown a measure allowing power companies to raise electric bills to cover the cost of lawsuits from last year's deadly wildfires—even if the utility is found to have behaved negligently.

Even many of the lawmakers who voted for the measure said they had misgivings but believed it was necessary to prevent financial ruin for PG&E. The utility is potentially on the hook for billions of dollars if its equipment is ultimately blamed for wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes in Northern California wine country last October--the most expensive fire storm in state history.

In June, California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said power lines owned by San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. are to blame for a dozen wildfires in Northern California's wine country last fall. In eight of the 12 fires included in that report, Cal Fire said there was evidence of violations of state law. Its findings have been forwarded to county prosecutors, it said. 

"This is about protecting ratepayers, not helping utilities," said Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who helped craft the legislation. "The fact of the matter is ratepayers would be hurt in a utility bankruptcy."

But the move has infuriated ratepayer advocates, who warned that the measure puts the utility on the hook for damages that haven't even been gauged yet.

"Without a doubt the cost of our changing climate will be a shared one," said Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Democrat from San Rafael. "But the costs we're talking about here — the costs of negligence— should not fall primarily on ratepayers."

The measure is part of a wide-ranging plan to reduce the threat of wildfires, which have caused unprecedented levels of death and property damage in the past three years. The bill also would require investor-owned utilities — including PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — to harden their equipment so it's less likely to cause fires.

It would make it easier, in some circumstances, to do prescribed burns, clear dead trees and brush, log trees and build firebreaks. It includes $200 million a year for those purposes.

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