While calls mount for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to become a public utility, Governor Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., said he would welcome a sale of the bankrupt company to investor Warren Buffett.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy Corp, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which is owned by Buffett, has significant holdings in California and is "one of the few that are in a position to make a significant run at this," Newsom told Bloomberg BusinessWeek. But experts warned that Berkshire would be entering a complex set of circumstances given the ongoing wildfires, power outages and bankruptcy proceedings the California utility faces.
The embattled PG&E is already fighting off a hostile takeover attempt from its bondholders, a group of hedge funds who have struck an alliance with lawyers representing wildfire victims. Newsom said he would like to see more than hedge funds look at the company.
As wildfires burn out of control and electricity is switched off to millions, state and industry leaders are floating various ways out for the existentially threatened PG&E. Northern California’s massive Kincade Fire, which PG&E has disclosed began minutes after one of the company’s transmission lines went down, has already engulfed nearly 75,000 acres. At least 3 million PG&E customers have faced power outages, either proactive or wind-caused, as more than a dozen other wildfires also rage around the state.
California regulators announced on Monday the launch of a formal probe into the practice of public safety power shutoffs by utilities during periods of high wildfire risks. Newsom had called for the investigation after a power shutoff event from PG&E impacted 2 million customers, also calling for the utility to offer rebates to residential customers and small businesses.
PG&E — which is going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy after fires tied to its equipment created $30 billion in liabilities for the company in the past two years — has been resisting purchase requests. State legislators and other public officials have been calling for the utility to become public. San Jose’s mayor recently suggested a coordinated buyout among the California cities and counties it serves, while San Francisco’s mayor offered $2.5 billion for its relevant portions of PG&E’s grid. The utility said its facilities were "not for sale."
Newsom said he would welcome a sale to Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
"We would love to see that interest materialize, in a more proactive, public effort," Newsom said.
Experts warned that with PG&E’s liabilities situation so fluid, Buffett and his company would have a tough time trying to fix what even bankruptcy courts have not yet been able to sort out. ”It feels a bit like longing for a savior when there isn’t an obvious solution or a cheap solution ... there isn’t a white knight,” Jared Ellias, a bankruptcy law expert at the UC Hastings College of Law, told the Sacramento Bee.
The key question is whether Berkshire actually wants to pull together a serious bid for the utility, given the ongoing uncertainty about its future liabilities. While the bankruptcy judge is actively considering the hedge-fund-backed takeover plan from bondholders, Buffett had previously dismissed spring rumors that it was in talks to buy PG&E, and Berkshire has yet to publicly indicate any fresh interest in an acquisition.
Gov. Newsom's office and Berkshire Hathaway were not available for immediate comment.