top of page

PG&E;'s Bankruptcy Could Hurt California’s Aggressive Climate Goals

PG&E’s bankruptcy could have major spillover effects on the solar, wind, and electric car industries.

Zahra Hirji

BuzzFeed News Reporter

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

California’s devastating two years of massive wildfire seasons was a wakeup call to some residents that climate change was already impacting their lives. Yet the financial fallout from the fires could make it more difficult for the state to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, which provides service to 16 million customers, says it plans to file for bankruptcy due to its financial exposure from the fires. Under California law, utilities are responsible for wildfires caused by their equipment, even if they are not found to be negligent. The company on Monday said Chapter 11 bankruptcy was its “only viable option” in response to an estimated $30 billion or more in liabilities stemming from damaging wildfires, which have been made more likely by climate change.

“This is climate change,” David Weiskopf, the climate policy director at the nonprofit NextGen America, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s what we’ve all been warning each other about for a long time. There will be impacts and they will be big.”

PG&E’s bankruptcy could mean bigger bills for its millions of customers and delays to fire victim lawsuits. It could also mean trouble for the utility’s many renewable energy contracts and other programs meant to better prepare residents for a warming world, climate and energy experts say, from electric vehicles to solar to energy efficiency. And if those programs are cut or scaled back, or become more expensive, it could hurt California’s ability to meet its bold climate targets as it's trying to be a leader on aggressive climate action for the rest of the country, and the world.

“In the short term, it’s not good news,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at University of California Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.

One of Elkind’s main concerns is what will happen to the utility’s multiyear, $130 million pilot program, announced last year, to install 7,500 chargers for electric cars.

A big barrier to people buying an electric vehicle is a lack of charging stations, Elkind said, so “not having that investment from a utility removes a major amount of funding the state was counting on to encourage people to buy electric vehicles.” The state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is oil or gas–based transportation.

In bankruptcy court, according to Joshua Rhodes, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, “all programs,