CA Gov Brown Signs Wildfire Safety Bill Blasted as PG&E Bailout

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday signed sweeping legislation designed to remedy California’s past, present and future wildfire ailments, brushing aside criticism that it is a bailout for PG&E, which faces a troubling mountain of liabilities linked to infernos that torched Wine Country and other regions nearly a year ago.

Source: San Jose Mercury News | Published on September 24, 2018

Natural disasters and homeowners insurance

“Wildfires in California aren’t going away, and we have to do everything possible to prevent them,” Brown said in a prepared release. “This bill is complex and requires investment — but it’s absolutely necessary.”

The newly signed bill, SB 901, obliges the powerful state Public Utilities Commission to determine whether a utility can recover its costs and expenses arising from a destructive fire that occurred in 2017. This narrowly worded provision would include the Wine Country firestorms, a number of which have been deemed to be caused by PG&E equipment.

When the PUC allows a utility, such as PG&E, to recover its costs, that typically is enabled through higher monthly power bills for consumers.

“We are very disappointed the governor signed the PG&E bailout bill,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group.

The legislation also includes a plan for the state to spend $1 billion over the next five years to reduce wildfire risk.

The money, $200 million a year through 2024, will fund grants to fire departments, cities, counties and nonprofit organizations. They will use it to thin brush, cut fuel breaks and reduce fire danger in hundreds of communities around the state in high-risk areas, from the Santa Cruz Mountains and Oakland hills to the Sierra Nevada and Southern California.

Cal Fire, the state’s primary firefighting agency, will distribute the money, which will come from California’s greenhouse gas reduction fund. That fund is made up of money that oil refineries, large factories and other polluters pay to buy credits at state auctions, permitting them to emit greenhouse gases.

The package also includes proposals by Brown to relax logging rules on private land statewide to make thinning forests easier. In a compromise between environmental groups and timber interests, the new law will allow trees up to 30 inches in diameter to be cut without landowners needing a state timber harvest permit — up from 26 inches now, but not the 36 inches Brown originally had requested — when they are thinning forests to reduce fire risk. It also will allow logging roads up to 600 feet long to be built on private land without a permit, as long as they are replanted.

“The forestry management funding in SB 901 makes broad changes that will encourage local communities to better plan for wildfires and ease landowners’ efforts to conduct fuel treatments on their land,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. “The $1 billion provided for that effort will go a long way,”

The foresting thinning rule changes drew some controversy in the final weeks of the legislature, but it paled compared to the debate over how much liability utilities should absorb when their power lines cause massive wildfires.

Among other key provisions in SB 901: protection for past and future fire victims; upgrades to electricity grid safety; establishing past and future wildfire-related financial responsibilities for PG&E and other power companies; ensuring that the money burdens don’t shove PG&E and other power companies into bankruptcy; and protecting utility company employees.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Yolo, Sacramento and Contra Costa counties, was the author of the bill.

State fire investigators have determined that PG&E equipment caused 16 wildfires last fall, including 12 of the deadly North Bay infernos. Of the 16 fire incidents, state investigators have alleged that PG&E violated laws requiring proper maintenance in 11 instances.

The bill also requires investor-owned utilities to harden their equipment so it’s less likely to cause fires. It makes it easier to clear dead trees and brush through controlled burns and other means.

Toney of TURN noted the pressure on state politicians from some Wall Street investment banks that were concerned unfavorable legislation would have eroded PG&E’s profits and undermined the utility’s stock price.

“We think that policy makers need to stand up to Wall Street blackmail and represent the interests of California customers over investor profits,” he said.

Pushed by a century of fire suppression that has left forests dense, a growing population moving into areas that historically burned as part of natural cycles, and a warming climate, the total area burned in 2018 in California – 1.4 million acres – is the worst in a decade, with another two months left before winter rains start. Four of California’s five most destructive wildfires on record have burned in the past 15 years.

Brown signed roughly two dozen other fire-related bills Friday, including measures to toughen arson laws; to provide free tuition at state colleges and universities to the children of firefighters killed in the line of duty; to require manufacturers of electric garage doors to include back-up batteries so homeowners can open them during power outages; and to require insurers to renew a residential insurance policy for at least two renewal periods (24 months) for victims of wildfires and other disasters.