- Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) intends to fight a series of criminal charges brought against it by a Northern California district attorney regarding the 2019 Kincade Fire, PG&E Corp's CEO said during its first-quarter earnings call Thursday.
- "We don't agree with these charges and we definitely are going to fight them," Patti Poppe said. Last summer, state officials identified PG&E transmission lines as having caused the wildfire, which eventually burned nearly 78,000 acres.
- PG&E exited bankruptcy last year after a complicated reorganization process that involved settling billions of dollars in claims from wildfires caused by its power lines. The company is now focused on preparing its system for California's upcoming wildfire season, as well as moving forward with securitizing $7.5 billion in wildfire costs.
The Sonoma County District Attorney's office filed a criminal complaint against PG&E in early April related to the 2019 Kincade Fire, charging it with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors, including recklessly causing a fire and reckless emission of air contaminants.
But while PG&E has accepted that its transmission line caused the fire, it has pushed back against those charges. During a recent court hearing, utility lawyers indicated they would challenge 20 counts in the indictment, The Press Democrat reported.
"[The] Sonoma County district attorney has a constituency — she's elected, she has a job to do," Poppe told analysts during the company's earnings call. "We don't think there's a criminal basis for those charges [and] we will fight those charges," she added.
It could take anywhere from months to potentially up to two years to resolve the matter in court, Poppe said.
Responding to these comments, Brian Staebell, chief deputy district attorney for Sonoma County, said the office evaluates thousands of criminal cases every year and does not file criminal charges unless it believes it can prove the outcome beyond a reasonable doubt.
“We’re making the decisions strictly based on the evidence that we have, that we’ve received from the investigating agencies,” like the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Staebell said.
Last year, PG&E recorded a charge of $625 million related to losses it expects to face because of the Kincade Fire. Now, the utility has upped that figure to $800 million, but believes it is "reasonably possible" the amount of loss could be even greater, the company said in its latest 10-Q filing. If liabilities from the fire are more than $1 billion, PG&E could potentially tap into California's wildfire insurance fund for some of those costs.
PG&E recorded $120 million in income available for common shareholders for the first quarter of 2021.
The company is also pursuing a proposal to securitize $7.5 billion of costs from a series of wildfires that occurred in 2017, a move that has been criticized by ratepayer advocates who worry about the impact on the utility's customers. PG&E's proposal received an initial approval from state regulators earlier this month, and the company can move forward with issuing ratepayer-backed recovery bonds once the California Public Utilities Commission approves a financing order slated for a vote in May.
The timing of issuing that securitized debt depends on whether that decision is challenged, PG&E Corp Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Chris Foster told analysts Thursday. However, the company expects to complete it later this year or early 2022.
In terms of its clean energy goals, 88% of PG&E's bundled sales in 2020 came from greenhouse gas-free sources of energy, Poppe said — more than the twice the average across U.S. utilities. The utility is also looking to bring online more than 900 MW of additional battery storage by August.
"We'll continue to evaluate opportunities to add battery storage across our territory, including opportunities in high fire threat areas," she added.