A federal bankruptcy judge in San Francisco on Tuesday approved two settlements totaling $24.5 billion offered by Pacific Gas and Electric Corp. for victims of Northern California wildfires and insurance companies that have paid out damage claims. The utility has acknowledged that its equipment ignited several catastrophic wildfires in recent years.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali released his decision after a marathon five-hour hearing Tuesday. The action improves the utility's bid to exit bankruptcy proceedings before a June 30, 2020, deadline. That's when the utility could become eligible for a state-financed wildfire fund.
The judge also allowed a civil suit to be brought against PG&E by families of the victims of the December 2016 " Ghost Ship" fire which killed 36 people. A trial will determine the utility's liability in that blaze.
"Today marks an important milestone – the Bankruptcy Court has approved our settlement agreements resolving all major wildfire claims," PG&E said in an emailed statement. "This brings us one significant step closer to getting victims paid so they can rebuild their lives."
However, PG&E's bankruptcy plan still faces opposition from California Gov. Gavin Newsom who wants the company restructured with a new board of directors that would prioritize safety. PG&E needs Newsom's approval to participate in the California wildfire fund established by the legislature that would help all the state's utilities to cover their liabilities in the event of future fires.
The utility also faces a challenge from a group of hedge funds that are seeking control of the company.
In a related development, the utility also agreed to a proposed $1.675 billion settlement with state energy regulators for PG&E's role in igniting deadly fires in 2017 and 2018.
"This includes wildfires that occurred in 2017 in Butte, Calaveras, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Sonoma, and Yuba Counties, and the deadly 2018 Camp Fire," according to a statement released by the California Public Utilities Commission.
The statement added:
"The proposed settlement ... prevents the utility from recovering $1.625 billion in wildfire-related costs from ratepayers and would fund an additional $50 million by PG&E shareholders in system enhancements and community engagement initiatives to strengthen its electric operations and maintenance in an effort to mitigate the risk of wildfires. This amounts to a total financial obligation by PG&E shareholders of $1.675 billion."
That proposed settlement is subject to public review, the Commission's review and court approval.