California Wildfires Set Off Political Fight Over Who Should Pay For Damage One controversial topic is whether utilities should have to pay for damage their equipment causes — even if the companies followed state safety regulations and laws.
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California Wildfires Set Off Political Fight Over Who Should Pay For Damage

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California Wildfires Set Off Political Fight Over Who Should Pay For Damage

California Wildfires Set Off Political Fight Over Who Should Pay For Damage

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The wildfires have set off a political debate in California's state capitol. It centers on who should pay when power lines cause fires. Marisa Lagos from member station KQED reports.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: A special joint legislative committee on wildfires has been meeting for two weeks now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL DODD: Good afternoon. I want to welcome everybody here to the Conference Committee on S.B. 901.

LAGOS: State Senator Bill Dodd is leading the group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DODD: These goals are very straightforward - first and foremost, to fight for those devastated in 2017 fires and to prevent future wildfires from claiming new victims.

LAGOS: Today, Dodd and other lawmakers are debating perhaps the most controversial question. Should electric companies have to pay for damage when their equipment starts a fire, even if they weren't negligent? It's a very real scenario. State fire investigators blame PG&E, the state's largest utility, for 16 of last year's devastating Northern California wildfires. Those killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes, and individual residents and local governments are suing Southern California Edison for the gigantic Thomas Fire, which devastated the central coast and, until this week, was the biggest fire in state history.

RICHARD ATMORE: Our utility companies could have done a much better job.

LAGOS: Ventura cattle rancher Richard Atmore is one of those suing Edison. He says utilities should have done more.

ATMORE: They never wanted to participate in the vegetation management practices. They did 40, 50 years ago, but all of a sudden, they got more interested in profits than they were in prevention work.

LAGOS: The utilities, however, say that as climate change makes wildfires more frequent and severe, they won't be able to survive financially if they're on the hook. And they warn that the state's ambitious climate change goals will be at risk. Steve Malnight is a senior vice president at PG&E.

STEVE MALNIGHT: California's existing liabilities laws weren't made for the new normal that we face going forward of these climate-driven wildfires. It's creating really significant financial risk to the utilities, which will limit our ability to continue making the investments we need going forward.

LAGOS: PG&E is taking this political fight seriously. It spent the same amount on lobbying between April and June this year as it spent in all of 2017. That's on top of nearly $1 million in political donations to key players this year. Governor Jerry Brown isn't proposing a complete repeal of the liability laws, but he wants to let courts weigh the public benefit of the electrical equipment with the harm caused to property when deciding who should pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY BROWN: My goal was to try to find a reasonable balance that would reward players, including utilities, for doing the right thing but make them liable when they didn't take the steps that common sense and prudence would warrant.

LAGOS: PG&E thinks Brown's legislation doesn't go far enough. But for ranchers like Richard Atmore...

ATMORE: I think the governor's proposal is too far slanted towards protecting this huge corporation of the utility companies. They give a tremendous amount of money, but just because they give a lot of money lobbying does not mean that you look the other way when they cause a big mistake.

LAGOS: It's now up to lawmakers to decide how to strike a balance, and they only have three more weeks until the end of the legislative session to do it. For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco.

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