Should a Power Company Be Held Responsible for Wildfires?

If you’ve been following the news, you know that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because it is facing tens of billions of dollars in liability for wildfires. PG&E’s equipment has been linked to wildfires that killed dozens of people, burned thousands of structures, and resulted in billions of dollars in damage over the past few years.

Such wildfires are tragic, no doubt, but should a power company really be held responsible for all the losses? Were company representatives truly negligent or could bad luck be partly to blame? Some investigations are still ongoing in PG&E’s case, so I don’t have the answers, but it seems terribly unfortunate for a company whose roots go back to 1852, and that has more than 20,000 employees and delivers energy to nearly 16 million people in Northern and Central California, to be run through the wringer for such accidents.

Bad Luck or Neglect?

Yet, PG&E does have a history of “bad luck,” if that’s what it is. The company is still on probation after a natural gas pipeline blast killed eight people and injured dozens more in San Bruno, Calif., in 2010. The utility was ultimately convicted of six felony charges connected to that explosion. The sentence handed down on Jan. 26, 2017, included a $3 million fine; a court-ordered monitor to oversee the company’s natural gas operations; 10,000 hours of community service, including at least 2,000 hours performed by high-level personnel; an advertising mandate, which required PG&E to publicize the conviction and steps it was taking to prevent future offenses; and five years of probation.

Furthermore, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) found that PG&E equipment was responsible for at least 17 wildfires in 2017. Many of those fires resulted from trees falling or coming into contact with power lines in some other way. CAL FIRE reported that the fires burned 193,743 acres, destroyed 1,112 structures, and resulted in 23 deaths. But the fire that carries the most liability for the company is the “Camp Fire” wildfire, which devastated parts of Butte County in November 2018. It was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. The Camp Fire killed 85 people, destroyed 18,804 structures, and burned 153,336 acres, according to CAL FIRE.

A lawsuit filed against PG&E claims that the Camp Fire was sparked by an uninsulated jumper cable, which is used to connect a line on one side of a transmission tower to a line on the other side, breaking free due to intense winds and contacting the steel tower. Presumably, the contact produced hot molten sparks that fell down on dry vegetation, starting the fire.

It’s been reported that a winter storm in December 2012—with winds reaching as high as 55 mph—toppled five lattice-steel towers near the Camp Fire origin point. Temporary wooden poles were installed in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2016 that PG&E replaced the steel towers, and it didn’t replace any other towers in the area, which an attorney involved in the recent lawsuit said are at least 50 years old. Such actions could be seen as a lack of urgency and lack of foresight in the company’s decision-making processes.

Nonetheless, assuming the jumper cable did start the Camp Fire, is it really PG&E’s fault? What if conditions had been different and the grass had been green or the ground had been wet from rainfall? Would the fire have started? Wasn’t this just a case of bad luck?

Predicting Failure Is Difficult

The lawsuit against PG&E suggests that the company failed to properly inspect and maintain the equipment. Based on some of the history I’ve outlined above, a person could conclude that there is a systemic problem within the company. I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but I think it’s prudent to withhold judgement until the investigation is completed. Unless there is evidence of negligence, I find it troubling that the company could potentially be held responsible for the equipment failure.

If you’ve been in the power industry for any length of time, you’ve seen equipment fail. Insulators crack, bearings go out, transformers develop faults, and bolts break. Sometimes the signs of impending failure are evident, sometimes they aren’t. Maintenance workers and supervisors do their best to detect problems before materials fail, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Complicating matters, when a deteriorated part is replaced, there are rarely definitive answers to the questions of when would the component have failed and would it have caused a serious problem, so a positive feedback mechanism is absent.

There are also costs that must be considered. Can everything that shows even the slightest sign of wear be replaced? Maintenance funds are limited, so managers must evaluate failure risks every day and utilize resources in the most prudent manner possible. They must decide what requires immediate repair and what can be deferred until additional funds are available. It’s easy to play armchair quarterback and point fingers, but as Theodore Roosevelt stated so eloquently in his “Man in the Arena” speech: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”

Yet, even as I feel some leeway should be given when it comes to evaluating maintenance decisions, I want to stress that negligence is unacceptable. If workers knew that failure was imminent and chose to cover up problems or willfully ignored signs, they should be held accountable. But what does that mean? Should PG&E be forced to pay billions in restitution? I don’t think so. ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.