Pacific Gas and Electric—the investor-owned utility that provides electricity and gas for approximately 16 million people across Northern California—announced Monday that it plans to file for bankruptcy. The move is perhaps not surprising for a company that was already an estimated $30 billion in the hole thanks to costs it’s faced in damage to its infrastructure and equipment in the past two years from wildfires across the state. The company has also been found responsible for at least 18 of the 21 large fires that blazed through California in 2017, and that doesn’t even count its possible liability for the Camp Fire, the deadliest conflagration in California history. November’s Camp Fire took the lives of at least 86 people in Butte County, turned the entire town of Paradise to ash, and consumed more than 14,000 homes in the area. Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the blaze, but PG&E did report damage to a 115,000-volt transmission line just minutes before the fire first sparked in the same location. If it is found to be at fault in the Camp Fire, the utility may face charges of homicide, according to a state attorney general.
So the plan to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection isn’t necessarily surprising, but it could pose an enormous problem. Here in California, we’re still trying to figure out how to rebuild and help victims of fires that burned months and years ago. No one is sure which path forward will safely provide electricity to the millions of Californians who need it. The fires aren’t likely to stop. And a broke utility company filing for bankruptcy certainly doesn’t help, particularly because the federal bankruptcy judge who will rule on the potential filing will be obligated to prioritize the interest of PG&E’s creditors rather than ratepayers or fire victims.