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Because of climate change, wildfires are inevitable. Who should be liable for the damage?




Tens of thousands of acres and dozens of homes and businesses have burned in widespread wildfires that are burning in Napa and Sonoma counties.
Tens of thousands of acres and dozens of homes and businesses have burned in widespread wildfires that are burning in Napa and Sonoma counties.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Some of the worst fires in California have been sparked by power lines from private utilities, who are held liable for the damage caused.

They’re held liable even if they’re not negligent, because of a legal doctrine called “inverse condemnation.” But as wildfires become more common, California lawmakers are considering easing some of that liability.

Governor Brown released a proposal Tuesday that would shrink PG&E’s legal liability for certain wildfire damages. In a conference committee hearing today, lawmakers will discuss the proposal and hear from stakeholders.

PG&E has said it might go bankrupt if it were to take on full wildfire liability. Along with other power companies and some environmentalists, they’re pushing to scale back some of that responsibility. But on the other side, insurance companies, local governments and fire victims are saying that private utilities should not be bailed out and shouldn’t be passing along costs to ratepayers either.

So who should be held liable? What are the current pieces of legislation being considered and what would they accomplish? What does the governor’s proposal mean for utilities?

With guest host Libby Denkmann

Guests: 

Sean Hecht, co-executive director of Emmett Institute of Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law school

Matt Dorsey, spokesperson for the Building Resilient Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s Economy (BRITE) CA Coalition, which includes Pacific Gas and Electric, as well as other utilities, labor organizations and businesses that aim for California energy infrastructure to address climate change

Tom Long, legal director of the consumer advocacy group The Utility Reform Network (TURN)