California regulators on Thursday approved with conditions Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s (PG&E) proposed $58 billion bankruptcy reorganization plan, giving the combination utility a clear path to exit Chapter 11 once a federal bankruptcy court approves the proposal.
In addition to the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) OK, the San Francisco-based utility’s proposal has gained approvals from Gov. Gavin Newsom, bankruptcy creditors, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The plan calls for PG&E to pay $25.5 billion to cover the devastation from wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
Most of the conditions in the state regulators’ approval came from CPUC President Marybel Batjer’s criticism-laced ruling last February regarding PG&E’s management, board governance, and regulatory oversight. Batjer warned that for the approved plan to be successful, “PG&E needs to embrace the need for fundamental change.”
Before voting, the CPUC listened to more than two hours of public comments, most of which urged the regulators to reject the utility’s plan. The comments included the Mayor of San Jose Sam Liccardo representing more than 200 local elected officials in the state who are opposed to PG&E’s proposal.
PG&E is accepting an unprecedented level of regulation and third-party involvement in its natural gas and electric businesses, including allowing its state operating permit to be the subject of ongoing review, hosting a state-appointed observer to review safety goals progress, and appointing an independent monitor when the current federal district court monitor’s term expires next year.
CEO Bill Johnson said PG&E is “committed to doing right by the communities impacted by wildfires.”
The court monitor, U.S. District Judge William Alsup alleged during a hearing Thursday that PG&E was resisting stricter safety measures against wildfires, saying “if ever a corporation deserved to go to prison, it is PG&E for the people it killed in California.” Alsup referred to PG&E as a “recalcitrant criminal.”
Alsup ordered the utility to expand its wildfire safety mitigation work. In response, PG&E attorneys argued that Alsup overstepped his authority and verged into the CPUC’s territory. PG&E spokesperson Ari Vanrenen referred to the matters in Alsup’s court as “an ongoing dialogue.”
Liabilities related to the 2017 and 2018 wildfires estimated at $30 billion prompted PG&E in January 2019 to file for bankruptcy for the second time in less than 20 years. If approved by the court, it would be the largest U.S. utility bankruptcy ever.
The CPUC confirmed that the plan meets the requirements of the state’s wildfire relief law and keeps PG&E on track to meet a June 30 deadline to emerge from bankruptcy in time to qualify for coverage from a California wildfire insurance fund.
On May 22, creditors approved the plan with about 80,000 wildfire victims voting for the utility proposal. Confirmation hearings began May 27 for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California to consider approving the plan.
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