The latest development in the painfully slow bankruptcy clownshow of Pacific Gas & Electric is a proposed settlement in a case brought by the Butte County district attorney and county officials — with PG&E pleading guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting a fire in the 2018 Camp Fire.
The case is one of many variables and burdens that remain unsettled in PG&E's attempt to extricate itself from bankruptcy, and in and of itself only amounts to a nominal fine and an agreement to cover legal fees. As the New York Times reports, the settlement has a maximum fine of $3.5 million, and per KPIX, the total expense will be around $4 million after covering the county's legal expenses. The utility has also agreed to pay to restore water access to residents who relied on the Miocene Canal, which was destroyed in the fire and has been owned and operated by PG&E since 1917.
In a statement, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said, "Today’s charges underscore the reality of all that was lost, and we hope that accepting those charges helps bring more certainty to the path forward so we can get victims paid fairly and quickly."
The plea agreement became public Monday in a regulatory filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and it will still be subject to approval in state and federal court.
In December, PG&E agreed to a $13.5 billion settlement with wildfire victims dating back to 2015 — including the 2015 Butte Fire, the 2017 wine country fires, as well as the 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, even though PG&E has not been definitively found to be at fault in the latter. Half of that settlement, though, will be paid out in company stock, which at the moment has been trading at historic lows.
Governor Gavin Newsom has taken a hard line in calling for the utility to cease to exist in its current form, and saying that state ownership of PG&E is still on the table — especially if it cannot get its bankruptcy resolved by a June 30 deadline.
But on Friday, a landmark deal was reached between Newsom and PG&E, in which the utility agreed to enter into "a sale process" with the state if they end up having their operating license revoked by the California Public Utilities Commission — a possibility that was made real in a proposal by the CPUC last month. Under the terms of the deal, PG&E will not pay out dividends to shareholders for three years, and will use $4 billion in equity to pay off debt and re-invest in the business.
Last week's deal provided a ray of hope that PG&E will remain a private enterprise after June, though, with Newsom signaling for the first time that he approved the company's plans to overhaul its board of directors and leadership structure. As the Chronicle reported, Newsom said the deal provided "real accountability tools to ensure safety and reliability and billions more in contributions from shareholders to ensure safety upgrades are achieved." Furthermore, Newsom said, "Because of these new tools, the state will have the legal authority to continue demanding total transformation even after the company emerges [from] bankruptcy — and we aren’t taking our foot off the gas."
A member of the wildfire victims' committee advising the federal bankruptcy proceeding, Karen Gowins, tells the New York Times that this latest plea deal with Butte County is yet another sign that PG&E is going to be let off too easily in the end. Gowins lost her home in Paradise to the November 2018 Camp Fire, and her committee's opinion may impact how federal judge William Alsup views deals like this.
"I don’t see this as a win for the victims no matter which way it all goes," Gowins tells the Times. "Basically, they’re just going to slap them on the hand. I keep saying, 'Only the Lord can open a door now.'"
Sixteen months on, the town of Paradise remains largely uninhabited, after the fire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 11,000 homes, and only a handful have been able to start reconstruction. Many residents of the small town have scattered to neighboring counties, but many have scattered far across the country since the fire occurred.
Along with the settlement with victims in December, PG&E agreed to pay out $11 billion to insurance companies to cover victims' claims.