PG&E’s board of directors on Friday

PG&E’s board of directors on Friday revealed it has launched a wide-ranging review of the company as the embattled utility attempts to navigate an increasingly forbidding landscape of legal, criminal and regulatory challenges in the wake of a series of lethal wildfires that scorched Northern California in 2017 and 2018.

“The board is actively assessing PG&E’s operations, finances, management, structure, and governance,” PG&E stated in a terse announcement on Friday.

This sort of wide-ranging review by a publicly held company can often include sales or spin-offs of assets, as well as an assessment about whether the company can meet its financial obligations, and might have to file for bankruptcy.

“The board and management are working diligently to assess the company’s potential liabilities as a result of the wildfires and the options for addressing those liabilities,” PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said Friday.

Companies sometimes file for bankruptcy when they lack the cash or borrowing power to pay their debts or legal obligations.

“What PG&E is saying that a lot is going to be on the table for PG&E’s board to decide,” said Paul Patterson, an analyst with Glenrock Equities, an investment firm.

San Francisco-based PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2001 during a crisis in the electricity markets.

“It’s possible this could include asset sales,” Patterson said. “You only have to look at the performance of the stock to realize how much uncertainty is hanging over PG&E.”

Since mid-October 2017 and through the end of the trading day on Friday, when it first became clear that PG&E might be financially liable for causing some of the fatal Wine Country wildfires of that month, the company’s shares have plummeted 65 percent.

Shares of PG&E nose-dived by 26 percent in after-hours trades after the company’s statements regarding the wide-ranging review and assessment of how it might address its liabilities.“We recognize the need to balance the interests of many stakeholders while maintaining safe, reliable and affordable services for our customers, which is always the top priority,” Paulo said.

The financial pressure on PG&E is potentially enormous.

The Camp Fire in Butte County that broke out in November 2018 caused an estimated $7 billion in property damage and essentially destroyed the town of Paradise. PG&E has acknowledged equipment failures in the origin area for the deadly blaze, which killed 86.

The series of Wine Country infernos in October 2017 caused $14.5 billion in damage and killed 44 people.

“PG&E’s board is conducting a board refreshment process that includes searching for new directors at both the holding company and its utility subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Company,” PG&E’s board of directors stated.

At present, PG&E’s primary operating unit is a utility that handles electricity and natural gas operations. The state Public Utilities Commission and state legislative critics such as state Sen. Jerry Hill have suggested PG&E may be “too big to succeed.”

One option that critics of the company have raised is PG&E should contemplate breaking apart the gas and electricity operations.

“The board is looking to add fresh perspectives to augment its existing expertise in safety, operations, and other critical areas,” PG&E stated.

Alarmed by the fallout from the wildfires the state Public Utilities Commission has launched a formal investigation of PG&E’s operations and corporate governance. State lawmakers have signaled that they might not endorse any sort of bailout of the utility.

“When the wolves are at your door, you have to do something,” said Sen. Hill, whose legislative district includes parts of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, including San Bruno, the location of a fatal natural gas explosion in 2010 caused by PG&E that killed eight people. PG&E is a convicted felon for crimes it committed before and after the San Bruno blast.

“PG&E is trying to get ahead of the negative publicity with the PUC breathing down its neck,” Hill said.

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