Hours after NPR reported that troubled California utility PG&E was weighing a sale of its natural gas division to cover potentially billions of dollars in fines that could result if its equipment is found to have caused the deadly and destructive wildfires in southern and northern California late last year and in 2017, Reuters followed up with a report that the company was weighing a(nother) bankruptcy filing for some or all of its business to protect itself from what could be billions of dollars in fines.
The report sent shares of the utility plunging 27% in late-day trading, sending them back toward their 15-year lows reached in November.
While the bankruptcy filing - which would be the company's second after a similar chain of events left the company filing for Chapter 11 in 2011 - is far from assured, it's one of several measures under consideration as the company braces for fines that could far exceed its insurance coverage, as well as dozens of lawsuits by victims who were impacted by the fires. There's still the possibility that the utility is effectively bailed out by California lawmakers, who could pass a law allowing it to pass on costs associated with the fires to its customers.
The company is considering the move as a contingency, in part because it will soon take a significant financial charge for the fourth quarter of 2018 related to liabilities from the blazes.
A bankruptcy filing is not certain, the sources said. The company could receive financial help through legislation that would let it pass on to customers costs associated with fire liabilities, the sources said. But that is just a possibility, they said, so bankruptcy preparations are being made.
In another sign that bankruptcy wouldn't be its first choice, Reuters said that as of Friday, the company was backing away from arranging a DIP loan - a step typically taken before a bankruptcy filing. However, the mere fact that it is contemplating such an option should be sufficient to scare what few equity investors PG&E has left.
The news is the latest shock to PG&E shareholders after the company said in November it expects to take a sizable charge to its Q4 earnings as it anticipates massive legal payouts related to the Camp and Woolsey fires, which killed at least 86 people and destroyed 18,500 homes and incinerated most of the Sierra foothills town of Paradise.
The company said in November it could face a "significant liability" exceeding its insurance coverage if its investigators determine that its equipment did indeed cause the fires.
Meanwhile, in addition to PG&E's shareholders, the other biggest losers here are the citizens of California who now face an almost assured increase in their utility costs - either by a forced prefunding PCG's legal reserve, or by having whatever utility monopoly is left take over and crank up the bill as customers have no other alternatives.