Patrick McCallum remembers waking up in the middle of the night last October to a third of his house engulfed in flames. He hadn’t heard his fire alarm go off, but his wife was screaming. The next “15 minutes of horror” began as they ran out of their home in Santa Rosa, Calif. — “no glasses, boxer shorts on, through the flames and out the front door,” he said — and fled more than half a mile uphill until they found an off-duty firefighter.
“‘Dante’s Inferno,’ is a term I’ve used, but it was worse,” McCallum told The Energy 202 of the deadly Tubbs Fire that surrounded his home and neighborhood for miles.
Now, the higher-education lobbyist is representing a coalition of victims of last year’s wine country fires calling for state officials to do more. He is one of a growing chorus of voices opposing a proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown (D) that would reduce utility companies’ legal liability following these deadly fires.
The debate over who will pay for wildfire damage is heating up as California faces yet another spate of deadly wildfires. Fire crews are battling 18 blazes across the state, according to the Los Angeles Times, which have burned through more than 300,000 acres. The largest, the Carr fire, mushroomed quickly into the sixth-most destructive fire in state history and has claimed at least six lives.
But draft legislation sent by Brown to state lawmakers last week proposes a change to state law that would make it harder for fire victims to claim damages from utilities that help spark the fires. The measure would change a law holding companies legally responsible if their equipment sparks a fire, even if the equipment was properly maintained. Utilities are often blamed as the source of a wildfire when power lines or other electrical equipment spark a blaze.
McCallum says this would put him and other victims in an incredibly difficult position. That's because they would have to individually sue companies for damages and prove their negligence in court instead of getting the automatic compensation they are due under current law.
Noreen Evans, an attorney and former California state lawmaker, criticized the timing of the governor’s proposal. She said people in her community are still recovering from last year’s fires: “Their homes have not yet been rebuilt. Their kids are still having nightmares.”
Evans is representing more than 1,000 survivors of last year’s fires in litigation against Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined earlier this year that the company’s equipment was involved in causing 16 of last year’s fires, and investigators said there is evidence of criminal violation of policies in 11 of the fires.
Under current law, the company could be responsible for paying out billions of dollars to victims in connection with those fires. That’s in part why PG&E and other investor-owned electric utilities have been lobbying to change the state’s strict liability standard.
“The liability laws and the way they are applied in the courts were not made for this challenge we’re dealing with right now, these climate-driven wildfires,” said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo. “Without reform, energy companies are going to face massive, essentially uninsurable risks even when they followed established safety rules.”
California Gov. Edmund Brown says "we're in a new normal," as he anticipates more fires amid extensive fire season.— World News Tonight (@ABCWorldNews) August 1, 2018
"I would suspect there will be more fires to come, and more fires each year, for a very long time." https://t.co/gxRPC9jp4Y pic.twitter.com/KI5buIG1x4
The wildfire problem is only likely to worsen.
In a news conference Wednesday about the state’s fires, Brown warned of more to come. “The more serious predictions of warming and fires to occur later in the century, 2040 or 2050, they’re now occurring in real time,” he said.
And the wildfires extend beyond the Golden State. Nationwide, about 4.9 million acres have burned so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, up from the 10-year-average of about 3.9 million acres by this date.
The governor, who is retiring at the end of the year, sent his proposal last week to a bipartisan committee he has tasked with coming up with legislation to address wildfire prevention. But the clock is ticking. The committee, which met for the first time last week, will have to come up with a final report before the legislative session ends Aug. 31 if any measures are to pass this year.
State Sen. Bill Dodd (D), the co-chairman of the committee, said the particularly bad fire year has brought more attention to the issue. “What all these fires do is underscore the importance for us to get this important work done and do it right,” Dodd told The Energy 202.
In a letter to state legislators, Brown cited climate change and said that “the increasingly destructive and costly wildfires and natural disasters have the potential to undermine this system, leaving our energy sector in a state of weakness at a time when it should be making even greater investments in safety.”
Any change wouldn’t relieve power companies of liability for wildfires in 2017. But for fires that started this year and occur in the future, the proposal would call on courts to determine whether a utility “acted reasonably” by balancing “the public benefit of the electrical infrastructure with the harm caused to private property.”
Evans criticized Brown’s proposal for “putting PG&E profitability over public safety.”
“If PG&E burns down your house and kills your child, the judge would be required to weigh the death of your child with the public benefit of providing electricity,” Evans said. “That’s downright insulting, not to mention inhuman.”
Paulo said that changes do not “absolve utilities from responsibility.”
“Anybody harmed from wildfires can still pursue a negligence claim,” she said.
Margaret Peloso, a partner and environmental law expert with law firm Vinson & Elkins, said as fires in California get worse, the question of who foots the bill for the damage will continue to be critical. “What does the wildfire future in California look like? What are the consequences? It’s just not clear in the long run who will pay for wildfire damages in this way,” she said.
“It’s one thing to use the utility as an insurer... but the utility doesn't have access to the same kinds of tools insurers have,” Peloso said, giving an example of flood insurance programs choosing not to cover riskier properties.
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— Long-awaited fuel-efficiency proposal announced: The Trump administration unveiled its long-anticipated plan Thursday to freeze Obama-era fuel efficiency requirements through 2026, a major regulatory rollback setting up a likely legal showdown with California and other states. The plan is an “abrupt reversal of the findings that the government reached under President Barack Obama, when regulators argued that requiring more-fuel-efficient vehicles would improve public health, combat climate change and save consumers money without compromising safety,” The Post’s Juliet Eilperin, Michael Laris and Brady Dennis report. The proposal may also create upheaval in the auto market, as it could force automakers to make different vehicles to meet different standards in different states.
Some reaction from the Golden State and beyond:
- A group of 19 attorneys general joined California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) in pledging that the state would “use every legal tool at its disposal to defend today’s national standards and reaffirm the facts and science behind them.”
- Gov. Brown called it a "reckless scheme” that will mean “motorists will pay more at the pump, get worse gas mileage and breathe dirtier air. California will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible.”
- California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols warned in a statement to “stay tuned.” She said the agency would examine “how the Administration can possibly justify its absurd conclusion that weakening standards to allow dirtier, less efficient vehicles will actually save lives and money,” per Politico.
- California’s Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein introduced a Senate resolution to support California’s authority to set its own emissions standards. “The administration has again put a target on California’s back and they have chosen to protect pollution over people,” Harris said in a statement.
What does this mean for your gas mileage? The Trump administration proposal freezes fuel economy requirements at the 2020 level of 36.9 miles per gallon. “[T]he EPA’s standards refer to testing under laboratory conditions, not the mileage we get when driving our cars on the road,” The Post’s Christopher Ingraham reports. But by one estimate, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Simon Miu calculates such changes would have a “net effect of reducing the average real-world fuel economy of American automobiles by about eight miles per gallon in 2025 relative to what it would be if Obama-era standards were kept in place,” Ingraham reports.
Behind the debate: The New York Times’s Brad Plumer zooms in further on the link between fuel economy rules and vehicle safety, noting the Trump administration also argues that cleaner cars will mean more deadly crashes in three ways. “First, people who buy fuel-efficient vehicles will end up driving more, increasing the odds that they will get into a crash. Second, the fuel-efficient vehicles will themselves be more expensive, slowing the rate at which people buy newer vehicles with advanced safety features. Third, automakers will have to make their cars lighter in response to rising standards, slightly hurting safety,” the Times reports. “These arguments have been greeted with skepticism by outside experts who reviewed an earlier draft of the proposal.”
— "Rumor and innuendo": Lawyers for a former top personnel official in the Federal Emergency Management Agency say he was unfairly targeted after a flawed internal investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct. In their first comments following a report from The Post’s Lisa Rein, lawyers for Corey Coleman denied claims of widespread sexual harassment that spanned years and included allegedly hiring women as possible sexual partners for male employees. The lawyers said investigators reached false conclusions that were based on “rumor and innuendo,” Rein and The Post’s Elise Viebeck report. In a statement, the lawyers said “for reasons we cannot fathom, current FEMA leadership has chosen to demonize Mr. Coleman” and vowed to clear his name.
What’s more, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, said it received complaints in 2016, 2017 and 2018, first that “Coleman was hiring unqualified candidates and bypassing normal procedures to give jobs to favored applicants” and then this year “about Coleman demanding sex in exchange for jobs and promotions. Coleman’s attorneys denied the allegations,” Rein and Viebeck report.
— An eight-figure deal to help push a nuclear project: Earlier this year, a top Trump donor agreed to pay Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen $10 million if he helped acquire funding for a nuclear power project, including a $5 billion Energy Department loan, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The donor’s attorney denied that Franklin L. Haney had such a contract with Cohen. The contract was an attempt to acquire funding for the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant, and two unfinished nuclear reactors in Alabama, per the Journal. “Had he been paid the success fee, Mr. Cohen’s deal with Mr. Haney could have been among the most lucrative of the known consulting agreements he secured after Mr. Trump’s election by emphasizing his personal relationship with the president, according to people familiar with his pitches,” the Journal reports.
— Post-storm check in: DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielson is set to travel to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Friday to “meet with and thank Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel working on hurricane recovery and preparedness efforts,” according to a news release.
More on post-storm relief: Senate Democrats are calling on FEMA to provide information about why some people in Puerto Rico who were displaced following Hurricane Maria were denied federal assistance.
A letter from Democrats led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) notes that 61 percent of the initial 1,067,618 applications and 79 percent of another 43,380 appeals were denied by the agency, according to The Hill. “Currently, FEMA has deemed 333,118 IHP applications ineligible… As a result, more than 10 months after Hurricane Maria, hundreds of thousands of American citizens in Puerto Rico are still waiting for relief,” the letter reads.
And more from Puerto Rico: The new leader of the U.S. territory’s power utility said he expects the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to be privatized in two years, Bloomberg reports. “The bankrupt utility’s bonds have rallied since Monday’s announcement that it reached a preliminary restructuring deal with some major creditors, a step that the head of Puerto Rico’s federal oversight board said could hasten its privatization,” per the report.
— Oregon is on fire, too: A wildfire in north-central Oregon almost tripled in size overnight into Thursday, and it’s the third major wildfire in the area this summer, the Associated Press reports. At least 400 people were told to evacuate the region near the fire, which grew Thursday to more than 23 square miles.
— A “grid of scars”: There’s already a grid of tracks along the Alaskan tundra where oil and gas exploration has left its mark, a geophysicist told the New York Times after observing an aerial view of the area in a previewof what could come for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“A similar dense grid may soon cover some of the refuge itself, perhaps beginning as early as December, if seismic testing starts under a plan to sell leases for oil and gas exploration that was approved by Congress last year and that is strongly opposed by environmental and conservation groups,” the Times reports. “Disturbances like the tracks Dr. Nolan saw could remain for decades or longer like a tattoo on the refuge… Any new tracks could also potentially alter how surface water flows in the tundra, draining lakes or accelerating the thawing of permafrost in some areas.”
— The road ahead for Tesla: The electric automaker’s shares surged on Thursday “after the company convinced investors that it was able to yield positive cash flow and turn a profit, and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk apologized for past incendiary remarks,” Reuters reports.
What’s it like to ride in the Model 3: The Post's tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler describes a three-day test drive with the electric car: “The Tesla Model 3 is a lot like something you already know: a smartphone. But it’s more like an iPhone circa 2008, before we had figured out how to live with them,” he writes. “Over three days, I navigated the steep learning curve to operate this iPhone with wheels, and ended up convinced it is the car of the future. I also came away a bit concerned about our future.”
— And here's a good longread for your weekend:
“Losing Earth:” The New York Times Magazine has dedicated its entire latest 66-page issue to one story: “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” The story by Nathaniel Rich details the period from 1979 through 1989 through the stories of a climate scientist and an environmental lobbyist who tried to convince people about the risks of climate change. Here’s just a slice from the Prologue: “[I]n the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves."
- The United States Energy Association holds an event on Global Thermostat’s “flexible Co2 capture technology” on August 7.
- The ASU Barrett & O'Connor Washington Center hosts an event on “National Priorities for Adapting to Global Warming” on August 9.
— Satellite imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the massive expanse of the California fires visible at night:
Early this morning, #NOAA20 captured this nighttime visible imagery of thick smoke from the #California #wildfires blowing into the Central Valley. You can also see the #CarrFire (121,000 acres) and the #MendocinoComplex Ranch and River Fires (110,000 acres combined). pic.twitter.com/SOygPEMKej— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) August 2, 2018