PG&E’s major review of finances, operations, management rattles Wall Street amid bankruptcy fears

PG&E shares plummeted on Monday amid a wide-ranging internal review by the embattled utility that raised the prospect of asset sales, a management shakeup and even bankruptcy due to mounting legal, criminal and regulatory challenges unleashed by lethal wildfires that scorched Northern California in 2017 and 2018.

The gyrations in PG&E’s stock could intensify pressure on the state Legislature to bail out the utility from its wildfire-related liabilities and create a smooth path for the utility to pass along those costs to its customers.

“It’s not the Legislature’s responsibility to bail out a company that has shown negligence and disregard for public safety,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes parts of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties as well as San Bruno.

The utility behemoth’s shares nosedived 22.3 percent, or $5.45 a share, and closed at $18.95 on Monday. PG&E declined comment about the stock market decline or the rumors that now swirl around the company.

“The board is actively assessing PG&E’s operations, finances, management, structure, and governance,” the company said Friday.

This sort of review by a publicly held company of its own operations can include studying sales or spin-offs of operating units, as well as an assessment about whether the company should consider a bankruptcy filing if it is unable to meet its financial obligations.

“There is no set timeline, but the process is well underway,” PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said Monday. “No decisions have been made and no options have been ruled out.”

San Francisco-based PG&E’s widening challenges could prompt state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom, who took over as California’s chief executive on Monday, to craft solutions to keep the state’s largest utility afloat financially.

“If the financial viability of PG&E is in jeopardy, then state policy makers would have to think long and hard about how to address that,” said Paul Patterson, an analyst with Glenrock Equities, an investment firm.

PG&E faces potential wildfire liabilities that have increased dramatically.

“It is not surprising to us that PG&E would be assessing a range of alternatives, given the financial duress the company is experiencing,” Stephen Byrd, a Morgan Stanley analyst, wrote Monday in a research note. Byrd added, “We believe a bankruptcy filing is relatively unlikely, but we do believe a sale of the gas utility business is a possible way to address wildfire claims.”

State fire investigators have linked PG&E’s equipment to 17 of the fires that occurred in 2017. PG&E suffered equipment failures in the origin area of the deadly Camp Fire blaze in Butte County last November.

As of the end of September, PG&E estimated that wildfire-related claims against the company totaled $2.79 billion, nearly five times as much as the $561 million in such wildfire claims the company reported as of the end of December 2017, according to a company regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In a Nov. 13 filing with the SEC, PG&E disclosed it had borrowed $3 billion under its existing credit facilities. “No additional amounts are available” from PG&E’s respective revolving lines of credit, the filing stated.

PG&E became a convicted felon in 2016 after one of its gas pipelines exploded and killed eight people in San Bruno in 2010. In 2015, the state Public Utilities Commission imposed a $1.6 billion penalty on PG&E for causing the disaster, the largest financial punishment ever levied on an American utility.

The state Legislature has already shielded PG&E from financial hazards in connection with the Wine Country fires in October 2017, legislation that critics have blasted as a bailout of the utility. The legislative package also created a way for PG&E to ward off liabilities for wildfires that began in 2019 or years after.

However, what was missing from the legislation was any protection PG&E needs following the wildfires of 2018, such as the blazes that tore through Butte County and essentially destroyed the town of Paradise in November.

“Last year in January, PG&E’s surrogates warned lawmakers about bankruptcy,” Hill said. “The company eventually got a bailout. A year later, PG&E is back using the same playbook.”

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