New California law allows utilities to bill customers to pay costs of 2017 wildfires
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a measure allowing utilities to bill their customers to pay for future legal settlements stemming from devastating 2017 wildfires.
Brown announced Friday he’d signed the bill, which is aimed at preventing bankruptcy for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. The massive utility faces billions of dollars in liability if investigators determine its equipment caused the Tubbs Fire that destroyed thousands of homes and killed 22 people in Santa Rosa last year.
The measure is the most hotly contested part of a wide-ranging plan to reduce the growing threat of wildfires.
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.
Governor Brown’s office has published the following information regarding the new law:
SACRAMENTO – Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today signed legislation to strengthen California’s ability to prevent and recover from catastrophic wildfires, including Senate Bill 901 – authored by Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) – which boosts the state’s forest management activities, updates requirements for the maintenance and operation of utility infrastructure to reflect changing climate conditions, and protects ratepayers and utility workers.
“Wildfires in California aren’t going away, and we have to do everything possible to prevent them. This bill is complex and requires investment – but it’s absolutely necessary,” said Governor Brown.
“This new law is the most comprehensive wildfire prevention and safety package the state has passed in decades,” said Senator Dodd, who co-chaired the Legislature’s Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee. “It will help prevent further loss of life and property while ensuring ratepayers aren’t left holding the bag. By enacting this law, we’ve laid a solid base to build on as California continues adapting to the ‘new normal’ caused by climate change.”
“Senate Bill 901 is the right response to the devastating wildfires that ravaged our state,” said Assemblymember Chris Holden, who co-chaired the Legislature’s Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee. “The bill provides comprehensive safety solutions to protect ratepayers, makes our electric system safer, and helps stabilize the utilities.”
Following some of the most deadly and destructive wildfires in state history last year, Governor Brown joined with legislative leaders in March and committed to making California more resilient against future natural disasters in the face of increasingly extreme weather driven by climate change. Some of the significant highlights of SB 901 include:
- Requiring utilities to implement comprehensive fire prevention plans, including improvements to utility infrastructure.
- Expediting small landowner incentives and projects to reduce excess fuel and remove dead and dying trees and chaparral.
- Facilitating access to property to carry out projects to improve overall forest health and resistance to wildfires.
- Adding a rigorous standard for the California Public Utilities Commission to oversee the allocation of utility wildfire costs and expenses, including consideration of climate change impacts.
- Authorizing a financing mechanism so utilities can spread out wildfire costs to minimize impacts to ratepayers.
- Adding worker protections and prohibiting utilities from charging their customers for executive compensation.
“The Senate worked diligently this year to find commonsense solutions to wildfires that have now become a regular feature of life in California. Every Senate district is touched by the consequences of a warming climate and the wildfires that come with it,” said Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins. “Of particular significance is SB 901 which prevents future catastrophic wildfires across the state while protecting utility ratepayers from unfairly bearing the costs of wildfire impacts. I thank my colleagues in the Senate and the Assembly for the diligence in tackling this issue. And I thank Governor Brown for his engagement throughout the process.”
“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. The $1 billion provided for that effort will go a long way,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
“This year alone, 1.3 million acres of California have burned. The loss of life and property has been staggering. We are taking steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. SB 901 is a necessary first step,” said Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle.
“Catastrophic wildfires have disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians due to decades of neglect and failure to manage our forests and wildlands. This legislation is an important step toward safeguarding lives, property and the state’s watersheds,” said Senator Jim Nielsen.
The 2018 wildfires are already approaching last year’s total acreage burned – 1.4 million – with several months left in the calendar year. Four of California’s five most destructive wildfires on record have burned in the last 15 years.
In addition to working with lawmakers on a solution, Governor Brown in May issued an executive order to improve the health of the state’s forests and help mitigate the threat and impacts of deadly and destructive wildfires, which hinder the state’s progress toward its climate goals. Forests serve as the state’s largest land-based carbon sink, drawing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in trees and shrubs and in forest soils. But even a single wildfire can immediately cancel all those benefits.