Shares of California utility PG&E tumbled Monday, because investors are worried it may go bankrupt.
PG&E could be on the hook for tens of billions of dollars for its potential role in California’s devastating Camp Fire last year — the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. The company has indicated it does not have the cash or assets to pay anything close to that amount.
The utility, which provides electricity to about 16 million Californians, is contemplating filing for bankruptcy protection, Reuters reports. The stock fell 21% by midday Monday.
The cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, according to state fire officials. But PG&E has suggested it may be responsible. In a PG&E report last month, the company outlined employee reports of damaged power towers minutes before the Camp Fire broke out. One employee called 911 the day the wildfire started after spotting flames close to a high-voltage tower in Butte County — 15 minutes after a transmission line went out near that location.
A class action lawsuit filed last month accuses the utility of negligence and poor maintenance of its electrical infrastructure. Another suit calls the Camp Fire an “inevitable byproduct of PG&E’s willful and conscious disregard of public safety.”
The company could face murder or manslaughter charges if it were found responsible for causing the state’s recent deadly wildfires, according to court documents filed by California’s attorney general.
PG&E did not immediately respond to a request for comment
Last week, the state’s insurance commissioner reported $9 billion in insured losses from the 2018 wildfires.
PG&E’s total liability could be upwards of $26.5 billion, according to Hugh Wynne, co-head of Utilities, Power Equipment & Renewable Energy at SSR. Wall Street analysts expect the company to be liable for as much as $30 billion. The utility’s total market value is now below $15 billion, and PG&E has just $3.5 billion in cash after borrowing from an existing revolving credit line.
PG&E’s stock lost 64% of its value over the course of a month last year after the Camp Fire. But the stock had rallied back by about a third after the president of the California Public Utilities Commission suggested that the state would work with PG&E to ensure that it would not be permanently crippled by lawsuits.
A new law signed by California governor Jerry Brown last year, requires the commission to consider a utility’s finances when evaluating damages caused by wildfires, in order to determine the maximum amount it can pay without harming customers. As part of the bill, PG&E will be able to issue bonds backed by surcharges from its customers. Those bonds will help pay for damages tied to deadly California wildfires in October 2017 caused by faulty PG&E equipment.
The bill allows for the possibility that utilities could issue similar bonds for future fires, but that is not guaranteed.
PG&E is asking for a rate hike of almost $2 billion from customers, saying more than half will go toward wildfire safety.