Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment likely contributed to nine fires in 2019, two of which were caused by surrounding vegetation, the utility said in an Oct. 1 court filing.
The figure includes blazes that were 10 acres or more. According to PG&E, five of the fires were sparked by third parties—such as an animal or vehicle coming into contact with its power lines—and one was sparked by its equipment. The utility is unsure of what caused the last blaze.
The filing came in response to a request made by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is supervising PG&E's five-year criminal probation. Alsup asked the utility to submit the information following a report from PG&E's court-appointed monitor, who found that its ambitious vegetation-management program—meant to prevent wildfires in its service territory—was riddled with inconsistencies and problems (see CEM No. 1557).
PG&E also reported in its filing that it is drastically behind on its vegetation-management targets for the year—the utility had planned to work on 2,455 miles of power lines in 2019, but as of September had only completed 760 miles. This is largely because of a shortage of labor, according to the utility. While PG&E is recruiting more workers to complete the work, several conditions will impact its ability to complete the vegetation-management work, including topography, access and environmental conditions, it said.
Utility attorneys also reiterated the fact that they expect to conduct more public-safety power shut-offs this fire season. So far, PG&E has rolled out proactive shut-offs three times, cutting power to 22,000 customers in June and then, in September, again to 22,000 customers in Butte, Yuba and Nevada counties and to 48,000 customers in Butte, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sonoma and Yuba counties (see CEM No. 1558). PG&E has installed more than 160 "sectionalizing devices" that allow it to limit the extent of its shut-offs as well as speed up the re-energization process, the utility said. It is also engaging with the California Independent System Operator to craft a policy around de-energizing high-voltage transmission lines.
In response to PG&E's filing, Alsup issued an Oct. 2 order asking the utility to provide "precise details" on the three ignitions caused by vegetation and its equipment.
Meanwhile, a Sept. 19 motion filed in bankruptcy court by PG&E's bondholders and a committee of wildfire victims to terminate the company's exclusivity period—during which no other party can file a reorganization plan—is gaining traction in the court. The parties outlined their own reorganization proposal, based on a $29.2-billion investment in PG&E that would represent about 60 percent of the reorganized company's stock. The proposal would carve out $25.5 billion in cash and stocks to resolve claims related to the 2017 and 2018 wildfires (see CEM No. 1558).
Multiple parties filed responses with the bankruptcy court supporting the motion. The filings come as PG&E—which filed its own plan on Sept. 9—is requesting that the court extend its exclusivity period until Nov. 9.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents thousands of PG&E employees, said in an Oct. 1 filing that it is joining in on the bondholders' motion to terminate the company's exclusivity. IBEW's main concern is the June 2020 bankruptcy deadline that PG&E must adhere to in order to participate in California's wildfire insurance fund, established by AB 1054.
"In the fleeting months since AB 1054 was enacted, PG&E has made too little progress—the lion's share of which has come only as a result of pressure exerted upon PG&E by other concerned stakeholders—in developing a viable and potentially confirmable plan of reorganization," IBEW said.
With the tort claimants committee's endorsement, the bondholders' proposal could help PG&E exit bankruptcy in a timely manner, the labor group added—especially given the bondholders' offer, made at the Sept. 24 hearing, to match an $11-billion settlement between PG&E and insurance companies holding wildfire claims against it.
If PG&E's exclusivity were to be maintained, the company would have to go through a lengthy process to estimate its total liabilities, currently the subject of three different legal proceedings. The outcome of these proceedings could lead to claims that are much higher than PG&E's available equity investment, IBEW said.
"In other words, PG&E's proposed process creates a scenario in which June 30, 2020 arrives and PG&E still faces significant funding problems with . . . no obvious means for either resolving the fire-victim claims or exiting bankruptcy," it added.
The Public Advocates Office also agreed with the motion to terminate PG&E's exclusivity, although it is not endorsing the bondholders' term sheet. The PAO's chief concern is PG&E's own reorganization plan, which it maintains does not provide for "ratepayer neutrality" as required by AB 1054. For instance, the plan does not prevent PG&E from applying at the California Public Utilities Commission to pass on liabilities to ratepayers in the future, and would include fines and penalties levied against the utility in the same trust that will compensate wildfire victims.
"Terminating exclusivity at this time would serve all constituencies as competition will foster judicial economy, ensure adequate compensation to victims and creditors, protection of ratepayer interests, and compliance with state law, including AB 1054," the PAO said in its filing.
Attorneys with the Singleton Law Firm, which represents around 5,700 wildfire victims along with a few other firms, also supported the motion to terminate exclusivity. However, they clarified that all parties—not just the bondholders and the tort claimants committee—should be allowed to file competing plans in PG&E's bankruptcy.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali will consider the exclusivity motion on Oct. 7.