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California regulators clear way for PG&E bankruptcy filing

January 29, 2019
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Brandon Harami, center, and others yell during a California Public Utilities Commission meeting in San Francisco, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. California regulators have approved a measure allowing Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. to immediately obtain credit and loans while the company is under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California utility regulators on Monday removed a major hurdle to a planned bankruptcy filing by Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. at a raucous, last-minute meeting where protesters repeatedly denounced and spoke over members of the panel.

With protesters booing and shouting, “Shame,” four members of the California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to allow PG&E to immediately obtain credit and loans as part of any Chapter 11 filing.

PG&E would normally need to go through a longer approval process for such financing, but Monday’s decision exempted it from that requirement. The company had told the commission it would need the bankruptcy financing to continue providing gas and electric service and funding wildfire prevention efforts. PG&E announced on Jan. 14 that it planned to file for bankruptcy in the face of at least $30 billion in potential wildfire damages. The filing could come as soon as Tuesday.

Commissioner Martha Aceves said the CPUC’s decision would allow “the continuation of the lights being on” if PG&E declared bankruptcy. She was then drowned out by protesters in the crowd.

Commission President Michael Picker continued talking and running the meeting even when he and the other commission members could not be heard over protesters.

The commission faced criticism after it gave short notice of the meeting. State law generally requires multiple days of notice for public meetings, but the CPUC cited an exception for emergency situations that affect public health or safety.

Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, said that PG&E’s financing did not qualify as an emergency.

“These are public assets that are being discussed, and there’s supposed to be a public process,” Spatt said in a telephone interview before the meeting. “Everything the commission does is supposed to happen in a public process, and this is just the opposite.”

Protesters also blasted that decision, accusing the commission of holding the meeting illegally and bailing out PG&E despite its role in wildfires.

“This is absolutely disgusting what you’re doing right now,” Jessica Tovar, a member of the group, Local Clean Energy Alliance, said during a public comment session.

Christopher Chow, a spokesman for the CPUC, said in an email it had met its noticing requirements for the meeting.

Picker said the commission’s decision did not “encourage or enable” the company to seek bankruptcy and was not in any way an endorsement of that decision.

The Utility Reform Network had urged the CPUC not to immediately grant PG&E’s request. The CPUC should instead push the utility to reevaluate the need for bankruptcy following a state fire investigation’s determination that PG&E’s equipment was not to blame for a 2017 fire in Northern California’s wine country that killed 22 people, TURN said in a filing with the CPUC.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last week questioned whether the utility would still file for bankruptcy after his office estimated that more than half of the roughly $30 billion in potential damages the company cited was from the wine country fire.

PG&E cited hundreds of lawsuits from victims of that blaze and others in 2017 and 2018 when it announced that it planned to file for bankruptcy on or around Jan. 29. The company later it said it had lined up $5.5 billion in credit and loans so it could continue operating during bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy would consolidate the fire lawsuits and potentially leave victims with less money.