By Ivan Penn

New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES — Pacific Gas and Electric, the largest electric utility in California, filed for bankruptcy protection Tuesday in anticipation of billions of dollars in liability claims for two years of wildfires.

PG&E, which faces damage claims estimated at tens of billions of dollars for wildfires started by its equipment, said this month bankruptcy was its “only viable option.” In its filing, the company said it had $51.7 billion in debt and $71.4 billion in assets as of Sept. 30.

Investors and state officials tried to persuade the company’s board to change its plans over the last several days by offering alternative proposals and ideas.

Some of those people seized on a finding last week by state investigators that PG&E did not cause the Tubbs Fire, which tore through Sonoma County in 2017 and was the second-worst fire in California history. They hoped the finding had reduced PG&E’s liabilities enough to make the bankruptcy unnecessary.

Public interest groups, lawyers for wildfire victims and some investors have opposed PG&E’s bankruptcy filing. They fear that it could result in higher electricity rates for the utility’s 16 million customers in Northern and Central California and make it more difficult for residents to receive compensation for their losses.

The California Public Utilities Commission held an emergency meeting Monday afternoon to give its approval to PG&E’s plan to borrow $5.5 billion to finance itself over the next two years while it is in bankruptcy.

“Throughout this process, we are fully committed to enhancing our wildfire safety efforts, as well as helping restoration and rebuilding efforts across the communities impacted by the devastating Northern California wildfires,” John Simon, interim chief executive of PG&E Corp., said in a statement.

The utilities commission, which regulates PG&E and the state’s other investor-owned utilities, is reviewing possible changes to the utility that include selling part of the company or turning it into a government-run operation.

As part of the filings, PG&E asked the court to allow it to continue paying employee wages and providing health care and other benefits.

PG&E is seeking to maintain its customer programs, including support for low-income customers and the promotion of clean or more efficient energy practices. The company says it intends to pay suppliers in full.

The utility expects court decisions on those requests in the coming days. This is the utility’s second bankruptcy in less than 20 years. It sought bankruptcy protection in 2001 after a botched state deregulation of the electricity industry.

22384553