PG&E Could Face Murder Charges for Role in CA Wildfires

Photo: Dylan Mittag

After state officials revealed that California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, had caused some of California’s wildfires in the last two years due to downed power lines, a flurry of legal action has arisen to hold PG&E accountable. A class-action lawsuit by wildfire victims last fall alleged negligence on the part of the utility, with the filed complaint stating that “Even though PG&E knew that its infrastructure was aging, unsafe, and vulnerable to weather and environmental conditions, it failed to fulfill these duties, and failed to take preventative measures in the face of known high-risk weather conditions, such as de-energizing its electrical equipment.”

To add to the embattled utility’s legal woes, Utility Drive reported that California Attorney General Xavier Becerra told a federal judge in late December that PG&E could be tried for murder or manslaughter if the utility is found to have operated its equipment in a “reckless” manner that helped to spark the state’s deadly wildfires in the last two years. Becerra stressed his office has not reached any conclusions.

Additionally, late last week in response to Federal District Court Judge William Alsup’s November order that PG&E “provide an accurate and complete statement of the role, if any, of PG&E in causing and reporting the recent Camp Fire in Butte County” the utility acknowledged possible culpability for 18 burns in the past 2 years of widespread and deadly wildfires. However, as SF curbed reported, attorneys Randy Mehrberg and Reid J. Schar avoided commenting directly on the cause of the Camp Fire—which is still under investigation—and deferred to prosecutors as to whether PG&E will be held accountable for any recent fires.

Why This Matters: If PG&E is found liable for its role in California’s wildfires in civil court it could be on the line for billions of dollars, which will likely be passed along to its ratepayers. The fact that the utility cannot manage its own risks has raised the question of whether or not utilities are obsolete and operate recklessly knowing that they will be bailed out with their customers’ money. As Jigar Shah, co-founder of Generate Capital and co-host of the Energy Gang podcast said: “one word, microgrids….utility companies have not gotten into the 21st century” explaining that PG&E had not put in sensors or used supercomputers to try and predict risk of wildfires and suggested that in the future we transition away from large electric utilities altogether and instead focus on microgrids.

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