Power firm feeling heat over wildfires to seek bankruptcy protection

Yet PG&E is preparing to seek protection from its creditors under the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process.

The business, which supplies natural gas and electricity to 16 million Californians, is facing potentially crippling pay-outs – put at up to $30bn (£23bn) – following a series of wildfires in the Golden State in 2017 and 2018.

California investigators have connected at least 17 fires in 2017 to faulty electrical equipment operated by the company.

PG&E, which began life in 1905 as the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, has some 107,000 miles worth of power lines to maintain.

Some of these are more than half a century old and many have been prone to being knocked down by falling trees.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that, between 2013 and 2017, PG&E’s power lines were downed at the rate of one every three hours.

With getting on for a third of those lines continuing to remain energised, the risk of fire was intensified by droughts, while the risk to life was heightened by a growing tendency among Californians to move to woodland areas.

The company, which has 20,000 employees, spent an estimated $435m in 2016 alone on clearing dead trees from the vicinity of its power lines – but skills shortages overwhelmed it.

State investigators have found that, since the beginning of the decade, PG&E’s maintenance work has been behind schedule, while some politicians suspect that dealing with the risk of wildfires was not made a big enough priority.

Geisha Williams, the chief executive, stepped down on Sunday evening in a move that has been seen as placating politicians and the state of California rather than the company’s investors.

They have seen PG&E’s share price lose two thirds of its value and its debt downgraded to “junk” status since the Camp Fire, in November last year, in which 86 people lost their lives and 14,000 homes were destroyed. The cause is still under investigation.

The shares fell by a further 48% on Monday when Wall Street opened.

The departure of Ms Williams, who was paid more than $8m last year, marks the end of an era for one of the world’s most powerful women in business.

The daughter of political refugees from Cuba, she was one of just 25 women to lead a company listed in the S&P 500 index, while her appointment in March 2017 made her the first Latina woman to do so.

The cost of the wildfires to PG&E, which last week said it had cash of around $1.6bn and was seeking to raise a further $5bn from lenders, has been so high because of where they happened.

The $30bn repaid bill – which does not include any punitive damages that may be imposed on the company – reflects that many of the blazes in 2017 took place in the wine-producing regions of Northern California.

The Chapter 11 process would enable PG&E to keep the lights on while it restructures its debts – but some of the company’s critics are suspicious of the company’s plans to seek bankruptcy protection.

Californian state senator Jerry Hill told the San Francisco Chronicle: “I’m sceptical of just about anything PG&E says or does. [This could be] in order to scare the legislature into taking some action or the state into offering a loan of some kind or a bailout of some kind.”

The process could provide a headache for California’s politicians.

There have been regular calls during recent years for PG&E to either be broken up or taken into public ownership.

But there is thought to be little appetite for that due to the vast cost of maintaining the company’s power networks, particularly at a time when those costs are set to rise, largely due to various climate change targets the state has set.

California has already changed the law to allow PG&E to pass on some of the costs resulting from the 2017 fires to customers. A further change in the law would be required for the company to pass on the costs of last year’s fires. It is also feared that replacing PG&E with another provider could result in higher energy bills in any event.

It had been speculated last week that PG&E, which has some $18bn in outstanding debt, may choose to spin off its gas division as an alternative to seeking bankruptcy protection. But that would be complicated and, with gas only accounting for around a quarter of PG&E’s sales in 2017, would not guarantee raising the kinds of sums the company needs.

If PG&E does enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it will be the second time it has done so in its 113-year history, having done so in April 2001.

That followed an energy crisis, involving countless blackouts in San Francisco and elsewhere, caused by a decision to deregulate the wholesale energy market while keeping retail energy bills capped.

The measure had been taken on the assumption that wholesale costs would remain below retail prices, guaranteeing the profits of energy companies and providing them with an incentive to invest in new plant, but a surge in wholesale prices – partly due to companies like the now-defunct Enron manipulating the market illegally – led to the opposite happening.

On that occasion, it took PG&E three years to emerge from bankruptcy protection, while it ended up paying $10.2bn to creditors.

Some of those costs were borne by the company’s customers while the state governor, Gray Davis, paid a price for his response to the crisis. He suffered the indignity of a “recall”, just months into his second term, which resulted in him being replaced in 2003 by Republican rival Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If history repeats itself, Ms Williams – the fourth PG&E executive to go so far – will not be the last to lose their job as a result of this crisis.

2019-01-15T11:39:10+00:00By |

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