NATIONAL NEWS

Judge To OK $58B Plan To End PG&E Bankruptcy After Wildfires

Jun 19, 2020, 5:18 PM | Updated: 6:13 pm
PARADISE, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 11: An aerial view of homes destroyed by the Camp Fire on February ...
PARADISE, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 11: An aerial view of homes destroyed by the Camp Fire on February 11, 2019 in Paradise, California. Three months after the deadly and destructive Camp Fire, the community is beginning the rebuilding process. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge on Friday took the final step toward approving a $58 billion plan by the nation’s largest utility to end a contentious bankruptcy saga that began after Pacific Gas & Electric’s outdated equipment ignited wildfires in California that killed more than 100 people, wiped out entire towns and led the company to confess to crimes driven by its greed and neglect.

The decision by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali clears the way for PG&E to pay $25.5 billion for losses from devastating fires in 2017 and 2018. The judge said he will sign the formal order confirming PG&E’s plan late Friday or Saturday after the company’s lawyers make a few minor revisions worked out during a two-hour hearing.

“This has been a comprehensive and complex challenge for everyone,” Montali said as he thanked everyone involved in the 17-month bankruptcy case.

Dozens of lawsuits were settled during the ordeal, with $13.5 billion earmarked for more than 80,000 people who lost family, homes, businesses and other property in the fires.

“This is a great day,” said Robert Julian, a lawyer for the bankruptcy committee representing the interests of wildfire survivors. “We are going to start getting money into the hands of the victims.” It still will likely take two to three months for the plan to become effective, and PG&E has raised all the money it needs to start funding the victims’ trust and making other promised payments.

PG&E declined to comment, but it plans to issue a statement after Montali signs the final order. The confirmation comes ahead of a June 30 deadline that the company had to meet to qualify for coverage from a $21 billion wildfire insurance fund created by California last year.

The company still faces formidable challenges: Montali’s decision is allowing the company to emerge from its financial morass just as California heads into a summer expected to bring especially high wildfire risks.

The company plans to find a new CEO to replace Bill Johnson, who will step down June 30 after just 14 months on the job. That hiring decision will be made by an overhauled board of directors, including 11 members who were just recently appointed. PG&E also has committed to slicing up its sprawling territory into regional units to be more responsive to the different needs of the 16 million people who rely on it for power.

Financing the plan requires PG&E to nearly double its debt, saddling the company with a burden its critics fear will make it more difficult to raise the estimated $40 billion for improvements that the utility still needs to make to its electrical grid.

It’s still uncertain whether PG&E is ready to meet the challenges ahead, although the company insists it’s on a new path that will result in safer and more reliable service. PG&E is still behind in its efforts to trim trees and other vegetation that serve as tinder for its power lines during dry, windy conditions.

“This does not put us into a new chapter at PG&E,” said Will Abrams, a survivor of a 2017 wildfire who had been trying to convince the judge to reject the company’s bankruptcy plan. “This was an opportunity missed.”

But Montali decided PG&E’s plan met the bankruptcy code’s standard of being “feasible” and asserted he saw no other viable alternative to pay wildfire victims who have been suffering for years.

“Mr. Abrams’ desire for a better PG&E, for a better environment and a better Northern California, safe from wildfires, while aspirational and well-intended, is not something the bankruptcy code or this court can deliver,” Montali wrote in a memo outlining his decision.

PG&E’s shortcomings have infuriated a federal judge in a separate court case. U.S. District Judge William Alsup oversees the company’s probation following a felony criminal conviction over a natural gas explosion in 2010 that killed eight people in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wants to impose more safety requirements on PG&E to reduce wildfire risks posed by its electrical grid, but the company has resisted his efforts so far, saying it is meeting the standards of California regulators.

PG&E also expects to have to turn off power in parts of its service territory later this year to reduce wildfire risks during hot, windy weather.

Planned blackouts last year affected more than 2 million people at certain times, and the utility bungled them so badly that it had to publicly apologize and give $86 million in customer refunds.

State regulators are still investigating PG&E’s mishandling of those deliberate blackouts, which left many wondering how an area that’s home to some of the world’s most influential technology companies can’t find a way to keep the power on for days at a time. PG&E has pledged to better communicate about future outages and take steps to reduce how often they’re used.

This marks the second time in 16 years that PG&E has navigated a complex bankruptcy case that has raised questions about how it should operate in the future. The last time the company emerged from bankruptcy, in 2004, electricity rates soared and management focused even more on boosting profits instead of upgrading its power supply.

Earlier this week, PG&E took the extraordinary step of pleading guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for a horrific November 2018 wildfire that wiped out the town of Paradise. The inferno, known as the Camp Fire, erupted along a power system with parts that were nearly a century old. Besides the deaths, PG&E also pleaded guilty to one felony count of unlawfully starting a fire.

PG&E will pay a maximum fine of $4 million for those crimes, a penalty that incited more outrage and indignation among families of the dead who shared their heartbreaking stories before the company’s sentencing. The judge said that if the same crimes had been committed by an individual instead of a company, he would have been able to sentence the person to 90 years in prison.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

National News

Italy. Lazio. Rome. Via della Conciliazione. St. Peter Basilica. (Photo by: Fotia Francesco/AGF/Uni...
Julia Buckley, CNN

Tourist smashes two statues in the Vatican

A tourist smashed two ancient Roman sculptures into pieces at the Vatican on Wednesday.
20 hours ago
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 03:  Actors Brad Pitt (L) and Angelina Jolie arrive at the premiere of...
ANDREW DALTON AP Entertainment Writer

Angelina Jolie details Brad Pitt abuse allegations in court filing

A court filing Tuesday from Angelina Jolie alleges that on a 2016 flight, Brad Pitt grabbed her by the head and shook her then choked one of their children and struck another when they tried to defend her.
20 hours ago
surveillance image of possible shooter...
Associated Press

Police say California serial killer ‘on a mission’ in slayings

A California serial killer seems to be "on a mission" throughout the fatal shooting of six men and the wounding of one woman dating back to last year.
20 hours ago
...
Andrew Adams

Relatives scramble to relocate Florida woman to Utah after she lost everything to Ian

Family members were scrambling Tuesday to get a relative in Florida safely to Utah after she lost everything to Hurricane Ian.
20 hours ago
FILE - The logo of the Organization of the Petroleoum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is seen outside of...
David McHugh, AP Business Writer

OPEC+ makes big oil cut to boost prices; pump costs may rise

OPEC+ alliance makes big cut to world oil production to boost sagging prices, which could mean rising costs at the pump
20 hours ago
FILE: Photos of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins are displayed before a vigil held to honor her at A...
Chloe Melas, CNN

Alec Baldwin reaches settlement with Halyna Hutchins’ family

The family of Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer killed on the "Rust" movie set in 2021, and Alec Baldwin have reached a settlement.
20 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Ask these questions before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Cloud storage technology with 3d rendering drawer with files in cloud...
PC Laptops

How backing up your computer can help you relieve stress

Don't wait for something bad to happen before backing up your computer. Learn how to protect your data before disaster strikes.
young woman with stickers on laptop computer...
Les Olson

7 ways print marketing materials can boost your business

Custom print marketing materials are a great way to leave an impression on clients or customers. Read for a few ideas to spread the word about your product or company.
young woman throwing clothes to organize a walk in closet...
Lighting Design

How to organize your walk-in closet | 7 easy tips to streamline your storage today

Read our tips to learn how to organize your walk-in closet for more storage space. These seven easy tips can help you get the most out of your space.
Judge To OK $58B Plan To End PG&E Bankruptcy After Wildfires