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Mon11182019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

As a publicly traded corporation, Pacific Gas and Electric reported $17.1 billion a year in revenues from its electric and gas operations. After operating costs, expenses and taxes, it still made out with a profit of $1.7 billion last year.

So why has California’s largest utility filed for bankruptcy?

PG&E may be solvent, but it is facing a cash-flow problem as a byproduct of $30 billion in potential liabilities from a series of catastrophic wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018. In the company’s own words, the board has determined Chapter 11 “is ultimately the only viable option to restore PG&E’s financial stability to fund ongoing operations and provide safe service to customers.”

“A company the size of PG&E needs access to the capital markets, and right now, it’s under stress,” said Robert Labate, a San Francisco bankruptcy attorney with Holland and Knight, which has clients that do business with PG&E. “This is a way of getting breathing room.”

PG&E is being sued by thousands of wildfire victims for property damage, medical expenses and a heap of punitive and personal injury damages alleging corporate negligence. Insurance carriers that have paid claims to homeowners and businesses for property damage have filed dozens of subrogation complaints. Even local governments, such as Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties, as well as the city of Santa Rosa, have piled on with their own legal claims.

So even though the company was just absolved by state fire investigators in last year’s deadly Tubbs Fire, it still faces potentially tens of billions of dollars in liabilities. For one thing, its equipment remains a prime suspect in the Camp Fire that killed 86 people in Butte County late last year. A PG&E employee spotted flames near a shorted-out utility tower, at the same place Cal Fire identified as the start of the state’s most-destructive wildfire.

But bankruptcy will by no means solve PG&E’s long-term problems, which will require legislative and regulatory solutions. Because what will be just as important in the months and years ahead is consensus on a fundamental question: When can the utility pass disaster costs on to consumers as wildfires become more frequent and destructive?

And unfortunately for PG&E, that’s about public trust.

“There’s a lot of public distrust of investor-owned utilities right now,” said Tara Kaushik, a utility lawyer also with Holland and Knight. “There’s a sense that the utility has to be held accountable and to operate safely. But at the same time, we have these recurring wildfires that are making it unsustainable for them to continue operating.”

Even before the utility announced its intent to reorganize in bankruptcy court, the financial market expressed concerns about PG&E’s ability to recover costs associated with these recent disasters. It was part of the reason credit agencies recently downgraded PG&E to junk status, which only made it more expensive and difficult to access capital.

“The rating downgrade reflects the material exposure to new potential liabilities associated with the Camp Fire and the uncertainties associated with how the fire-related liabilities will be recovered,” said Jeff Cassella, vice president at Moody’s Investors Service.

As climate change impacts corporations’ bottom line, the same concerns have extended to other California utilities, triggering downgrades for both Southern California Edison, which services the Coachella Valley, and San Diego Gas and Electric.

Cassella noted that state lawmakers passed $1 billion legislation that did nothing to address the 2018 wildfires. SB 901’s most controversial provision, to make it easier for utility companies to absorb the cost of fire damages by borrowing money and charging customers to pay it back over many years, covered the 2017 fires and those that start in 2019, but not any when the Camp Fire hit.

PG&E also tried—but failed—to get the Legislature to loosen fire-liability laws. Under a legal doctrine called “inverse condemnation,” utilities are liable for any wildfire damage traced to their equipment even if they were not negligent in maintaining it. Unless the state Supreme Court decided to issue a different interpretation or voters approved a constitutional amendment, releasing utilities of this financial responsibility would be pretty much out of the question.

Enter the California Public Utilities Commission.

The five-member commission regulates investor-owned utilities in the state and could decide whether PG&E acted prudently and should be allowed to pass on wildfire costs—even the damages a utility pays out in lawsuits—to consumers.

But a precedent has been set that has made PG&E think twice about its ability to recover wildfire costs through rate increases. In 2017, the commission blocked San Diego Gas and Electric from passing on $379 million in liability costs stemming from a 2007 wildfire. In a unanimous vote, the commission found the utility’s management of its facilities unreasonable.

It’s unclear what the CPUC would do if PG&E asked to pass on costs from the latest wildfires.

“We don’t know yet,” Kaushik said. “They haven’t asked.”

Even without liabilities, the cost to maintain public safety is creeping up. PG&E is asking for a $1.1 billion rate increase for wildfire prevention, risk reduction and safety enhancements, which, if approved by state regulators, would increase the average residential customer bill by 6.4 percent, or $10.57 per month.

Wildfire victims and their lawyers are quick to question PG&E’s motives, calling Chapter 11 a tactic to discourage and discount lawsuits rather than taking responsibility for the spate of recent tragedies. Camp Fire victims recently rallied at the state Capitol with legal activist Erin Brockovich, who was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the 2000 box-office hit.

“This is another blow after the body blow of losing their homes and their lives,” said Noreen Evans, a former state legislator who is now representing 4,000 victims of 2017 and 2018 wildfires, at the rally. “It’s insult added to injury at a really hard time in their lives.”

Evans noted that under bankruptcy, wildfire victims with claims in trial court would be treated as unsecured creditors.

“Their claims would be delayed and probably discounted,” she said then—a fear that could now come true.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

It’s been a fascinating month of November here at the Independent, with the election and, of course, the Best of Coachella Valley. But I get to all of the greatness that is the Best of Coachella Valley stuff, I need to bring up a couple of stories we posted last week, because they have to do with one worst tragedies in modern California history—and the fact similar tragedies are likely to keep happening over and over again due to our new reality.

As of this writing, the Camp Fire in Northern California’s Butte County has claimed 88 lives—a number that is sure to rise, since more than 150 people have not yet been accounted for. More than 18,700 buildings—the majority of those homes—have been destroyed, including almost the entire town of Paradise.

Let’s put that in perspective: Paradise and Desert Hot Springs are about the same size in terms of population. Paradise is larger than Rancho Mirage. And it’s essentially gone.

One of the stories came to us compliments of our friends at the Chico News & Review. It starts out with one of the most harrowing, terrifying and heartbreaking stories of survival and loss that you’ll ever read. It concludes with a link to a GoFundMe page for Chico News & Review staffers who lost their homes in the Camp Fire. This one holds a special place in my heart—not only are these fellow newspaper people; I started my career working for the News & Review company, so I ask you to contribute if you can. Thank you.

Meanwhile, life goes on here in our amazing Coachella Valley—and that brings me to the Independent’s fifth annual Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll.

A record number of people voted in this year’s two rounds of polling, and we’re excited to present the results of that vote, along with features on some of the winners, and some additional “Best Of” selections by Independent staff and contributors.

I have a lot of people to thank here, including Beth Allen, who did the layout for the whole Best of Coachella Valley section in the print edition; and Brian Blueskye and Kevin Fitzgerald, who contributed our features. Huge thanks also go to all of our fantastic advertisers—and most of all, to the readers who navigated nearly 130 categories on our ballot to vote.

Please join us to celebrate all of our winners at the Best of Coachella Valley Awards Show, taking place at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Copa Nightclub in Palm Springs. After we give out the awards, Best Local Band winner Avenida Music will perform; admission is free.

Thanks, as always, for reading the Coachella Valley Independent. I encourage you to pick up the December 2018 print edition, on newsstands now. Finally … have a fantastic and fruitful holiday season!

Published in Editor's Note

The sun was beginning to set as Jim Wood stepped out of the examination room at the Sacramento morgue and walked into the lobby, white surgical booties covering his shoes.

He’d keep working there late into the night, but was taking a short break from the solemn task of identifying bits of human remains gathered from the rubble of the horrific Camp Fire.

Wood is a forensic odontologist—a dentist specially trained to identify dead bodies by examining teeth. He’s also a Democratic state assemblyman from Sonoma County. Those dual responsibilities have put him on the frontline in tackling two enormous, heart-wrenching puzzles: identifying the people who perished this month in California’s deadliest wildfire, and figuring out what state policies could prevent such catastrophes in the future.

“I thought that last year was really, really awful,” Wood said of the wine-country fires that killed 44 people, including some whom he identified through dental records. “I don’t think anybody expected that this year would be way worse.”

This summer Wood served on the special legislative committee that crafted a $1 billion plan to prevent wildfires—an amount he argued wasn’t sufficient for the massive task at hand.

For years before he was elected to the Legislature in 2014, Wood was a family dentist. Along the way, he sought extra training in forensic odontology and eventually became one of just 100 people in the United States who are certified at the highest level in the trade. He traveled the country to help identify victims of America’s worst disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Sept. 11 attack on New York.

More recently, Wood has put his skills to use a lot closer to home. Last year, he helped identify victims of the massive fire in Santa Rosa, just down the road from his house in Healdsburg. Last week, he was surveying the damage in Paradise, where the Camp Fire killed at least 83 people and destroyed 13,800 homes. Now, with the Legislature out of session, Wood is stationed at the coroner’s office in Sacramento, part of a team of forensic specialists who are examining the remains arriving from Paradise in body bags.

Teeth. Roots of teeth. Metal crowns and porcelain fillings.

“Most of what I’m seeing today are the roots of teeth. In these really hot fires, the enamel, or the white part of the tooth, often pops off the tooth,” Wood explained as he spoke in the lobby of the morgue.

“While those roots and parts of the teeth will survive, the jaw bone that supports the teeth is often burned away. So what we get are a bunch of teeth, but no way to associate them. So we use our knowledge of anatomy and the shapes of teeth, and I reconstruct. I look for a way to figure out how they would have looked in the mouth."

Wearing a white lab coat and rubber gloves, Wood arranges the dental remains on a big examination table. After he reconstructs a mouth, the next phase of detective work begins: Gathering dental X-rays and other records of people on the missing-persons list, and matching those images to the remains in the morgue.

It’s been difficult, Wood said, because many dental offices in Paradise burned up in the fire, and with them burned the records that could help identify victims. But he’s scouring other sources for X-rays that were saved electronically. Some 563 people remained on the missing-persons list as of Nov. 21, a number that has been fluctuating dramatically.

Mark Essick, sheriff-elect of Sonoma County, said Wood was a key player in helping law enforcement identify victims after the fires there last year. The sheriff’s department calls him in to help solve other cases that involve dental remains.

“He’s kind of a wizard,” Essick said. “He’s magic at what he does in helping us identify people.”

In between the infernos of last year and this year, Wood served on the special legislative committee focused on wildfire prevention. With his calm demeanor and measured tone of voice, he sat through long hearings on forest management, utility liability and emergency alert systems. He pushed for spending more money on thinning forests, something he said would benefit his rugged district that stretches from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border.

During the hearings, Wood didn’t publicly discuss his work identifying constituents who died in the brutal flames. But at one point in a late July hearing, he lost his patience.

“People are dying,” Wood said to Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker, who had just described a lengthy bureaucratic process for approving utilities’ fire-mitigation plans. “I don’t want to be here five years from now, when millions more acres may have been burned in California, and many, many more lives have been lost, wondering what the heck were we doing. So I apologize for my passion. But … this is my district. This is where 44 of my constituents died, and I don’t want to see any more die.”

Authorities said 16 of last year’s fires involved Pacific Gas and Electric equipment, creating the possibility that the company will face billions of dollars in liability. PG&E and other utilities were intensely lobbying the wildfire committee this summer, seeking a change to liability laws and a plan to help them avoid bankruptcy by spreading their costs out over time. In so doing, they showered politicians with campaign contributions, San Francisco Giants tickets and steakhouse dinners.

Wood was the only fire committee member to return PG&E’s campaign donation, forgoing its $1,000.

“I know how some of my constituents feel about PG&E,” Wood said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable taking the contribution.”

The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been identified, but PG&E reported problems with its electrical lines outside of Paradise just before the fire broke out.

Wood is urging that wildfire prevention continue to be a focus when the Legislature reconvenes. He wants the state to do something big—and quick—though he acknowledges that he doesn’t yet know what that should be.

It’s likely to be a painstaking process, but as Wood heads back into the morgue’s exam room, he seems to have become accustomed to painstaking work.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Environment

One of the highlights of the Palm Springs International Film Festival is its extensive program of films submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—giving audiences a taste of the best movies from around the world (or, well, at least what government agencies around the world have decided are the best movies).

This year’s festival featured 43 of the more than 80 Best Foreign Language submissions for the upcoming Oscars—including eight of the nine movies on the Academy’s shortlist. The five nominees, as well as the nominees in all the rest of the categories, will be announced tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 24.

The nominees in the category generally tend toward the middlebrow, with serious historical dramas—often focusing on World War II—reliably taking up a few spots each year.

Such is the case this year—three of the eight shortlisted movies shown at the PSIFF deal with World War II and its aftermath: Denmark’s Land of Mine, about young German POWs forced to clear land mines in Denmark after the war; Norway’s The King’s Choice, about the first days of Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940; and Russia’s Paradise, about a Russian resistance member in Nazi-occupied France.

Of these three, Paradise is the most artistically successful, doing more than just dramatizing sections from a history textbook. Shooting in black and white, in the constrained Academy ratio, director Andrey Konchalovskiy combines dreamlike imagery and magical-realist plotting with stark, clear-eyed depictions of life in a concentration camp, and the balance of power between Nazi officers and prisoners. The movie’s conceit of “interviews” with three main characters after their deaths is sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but it allows for poetic moments and quiet reflection that more straightforward historical dramas often lack.

Both Land of Mine and The King’s Choice take a more straightforward historical approach, and while they tell stories that have been underrepresented in historical accounts (at least outside their native countries), they only intermittently bring those stories to life. In Land of Mine, a group of young (most appearing to be in their early teens) German soldiers are kept as POWs in Denmark following the war, and are forced to clear the tens of thousands of land mines along the Danish coast. The movie offers a welcome perspective in which the Germans are sympathetic, scared young men who don’t necessarily understand the consequences of their actions; it’s the often vindictive Danish military personnel are the villains. But the young characters are nearly interchangeable; their eventual emotional connection with their Danish commander is predictable; and the suspense built around periodically exploding kids seems a bit exploitative.

The King’s Choice doesn’t have any exploding kids, and it’s a bit dry in its ploddingly procedural account of the few days between the time when Germany invaded Norway, and when the country’s King Haakon VII made an historic break with Parliament and refused to surrender to Germany. As director Erik Poppe explained before the screening, the king’s actions are an important part of Norwegian history, taught in schools—but without that inherent Norwegian pride, it’s hard to get worked up over this fairly minor military aspect of the war, or to get invested in the principled stands of a pampered (if likable) royal family.

After war movies, the next most-popular genre for the Foreign Language Oscar is possibly the intense domestic drama, represented by Canada’s It’s Only the End of the World and Iran’s The Salesman, both from acclaimed international auteurs. It’s Only the End of the World was adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s stage play by prolific filmmaker Xavier Dolan, and despite its cast of French superstars (Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye), it remains stagebound and claustrophobic, with the characters tediously talking in circles during a tense family gathering over the course of a single day. Dolan is known for bold, visually inventive films, but here, he sticks mostly to uncomfortable close-ups and stands back as his actors chew the scenery.

The Salesman, from A Separation Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, is more restrained, even as its subject matter is darker. It’s a slow burn about a married couple whose relationship is strained when the wife is attacked in their apartment, and her husband becomes consumed with finding the perpetrator. But this isn’t some action-packed revenge thriller; it’s a contemplative story about responsibility and empathy, a rumination on the value of vengeance and a look at how seemingly strong relationships can be destroyed in a moment. The lead performances from previous Farhadi collaborators Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are very good, and while the connection to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (a production of which the couple star in during the events of the movie) is a bit tenuous, both are thematically rich family dramas with satisfyingly downbeat endings.

Thanks to the creation of an additional executive committee several years ago, the selections for the Foreign Language Film Oscar category have gotten a little more diverse, and a few of this year’s shortlisted films fit less neatly into familiar genres. Sweden’s A Man Called Ove, Germany’s Toni Erdmann and Switzerland’s My Life as a Zucchini are all lighter than their fellow shortlist selections, with more emphasis on unique artistic visions. Ove is the most conventional, a feel-good dramedy about a grumpy old man who comes to appreciate life thanks to the efforts of his friendly neighbors. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing, gentle movie that could star Tom Hanks if it came from Hollywood, and while star Rolf Lassgård makes for an appealing curmudgeon, the flashbacks slowly illuminating his tragedy-filled past eventually tug way too hard on the heartstrings. But Academy voters seemingly love to have their heartstrings tugged, and with its mix of the heavy and the heartwarming, Ove comes across as typical Oscar bait.

The most critically acclaimed movie on the shortlist, Toni Erdmann, is the frontrunner to win the Oscar, and it’s certainly the strangest and most challenging film of the eight shown at the festival. Running nearly three hours, Maren Ade’s film is a combination of cringe comedy, family drama and sociopolitical commentary, with plenty of strange detours along the way. The title character is the alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an eccentric, lonely old man who wants to reconnect with his corporate go-getter daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). It takes almost an hour for Toni to emerge, as Winfried follows his daughter to her work assignment in Romania, and the movie unfolds at a meandering pace, with dry corporate meetings next to uncomfortable scenes of Winfried’s attempts to insert himself into his daughter’s life. Many have found the film moving, funny and profound, but for me, it was like listening to a long, rambling joke with no punchline.

The best of the eight shortlisted movies I saw at the festival is also the unlikeliest selection, the Swiss stop-motion animated movie My Life as a Zucchini. It’s also eligible for the Best Animated Feature award, but it’s a bit of a dark horse in both categories. That’s a shame, because director Claude Barras’ film is utterly charming, beautiful to look at and sweetly affecting. It’s the story of a young orphan (who goes by the name Zucchini) adjusting to life in a group home and eventually finding a makeshift family. The material isn’t groundbreaking, but the hand-crafted animation gives it a wonderfully skewed perspective, while the dialogue is funny and realistic, and the characters are very likable.

It was the last movie I saw at the festival—and it ended my experience on a high note. Hopefully Oscar voters will feel the same way.

Published in Previews and Features

Cleaners (Crackle.com): Emmanuelle Chriqui and Emily Osment star as mismatched partners (Veronica’s a square! Roxy’s a party girl!) specializing in contract killing and other less-than-legal activities—until they’re screwed over by their boss (Gina Gershon) and end up as targets themselves. Cleaners overstuffs fast edits, tough girls, snarky dialogue, pounding music and gratuitous gunplay into 20-minute episodes. It’s a Quentin Tarantino ’90s Film 101 course in speedball form, and it works so well that not even overacting by Gershon or David Arquette (as an FBI agent) can derail it. Stoopid, violent fun.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Crackle.com): Jerry Seinfeld’s slick shaky-cam infomercial series for classic autos you will never, ever, ever, ever, ever be able to afford (unless you’re Jerry Seinfeld), set to stock faux-jazz, would only be slightly less annoying if the comedian weren’t such an inept interviewer; it’s like every conversation requires a minimum number of “So how awesome am I, lesser comic?” check-in points. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is the flagship series of the imaginary Rich Douchebag Network.

Ghost Ghirls (Yahoo.com/GhostGhirls): Not that reality shows about ghost hunters and psychics needed to be parodied, but Ghost Ghirls (created by and starring Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci) is at least as funny as the “real” thing being cranked out by Syfy and TLC. Some of the Drunk History brains are also involved, as are some comedy heavy-hitters as guest stars (including New Girl’s Jake Johnson and Parenthood’s Jason Ritter in Episode 1), but the 10-minute series is usually less “genius” than “probably wouldn’t click away from on Adult Swim at 3 a.m.” (A bong, of course, is implied.)

Ghost Hopping (YouTube.com/GhostHopping): On the other hand, Salt Lake City-based comic Marcus (insert Last Comic Standing reference here) has achieved the impossible and made a ghost-hunting series The Only TV Column That Matters™ can actually tolerate. The setup: On his travels as a stand-up comedian, Marcus and his cameraman hit local joints—restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, malls and, natch, comedy clubs—to talk to the dead and generally crack wise. Sure, there are some of the usual elements of “Did you hear that?!” bullshit, but Ghost Hopping comes off as more genuine than the “professional” haunt hucksters.

Essnemma (YouTube.com/Essnemma): Former Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Emma Caulfield is either really good at acting loony twice a week for her vlog, or she’s legitimately full-time nuts, and Essnemma represents tiny windows into her pinball machine of a psyche. Whichever, it’s impossible to look away when Caulfield jumps into a profane rant or random thought-splosion (“Advice” on Thursdays, “Grab Bag” on Tuesdays), with her unblinking brown eyes and flying blonde hair worked into a cyclonic frenzy that’s as inviting as it is mildly terrifying. Her recent “review” of CBS’ The Crazy Ones—which stars Buffy compatriot Sarah Michelle Gellar—is better than the show itself … which isn’t hard, but you get the idea.

Hot Sluts (Comedycentral.com/cc-studios/hot-sluts): This Atom classic from waaay back in 2009 stars Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) as a small-town girl with dreams of becoming a dancer in the Big City—but instead, she winds up as a cocktail waitress in the seediest/funniest Grindhouse nightmare of a nightclub ever, Scenarios. Hot Sluts lives up to its title-implied exploitation (nary a bosom goes un-heaved or blouse un-ripped), but Brie’s “tragic ending waiting for the right Dumpster to be found in” dancer (who dances terribly, FYI) is funnier in five short episodes than her Annie has been on five years of Community. I want six seasons and a movie of this.


DVD ROUNDUP FOR NOV. 12!

Burning Love: Season 1

The ultimate Bachelor takedown and one of the best Web series ever: Burning Love, wherein firefighter Mark (Ken Marino) sifts through a throng of desperate single women in order to find that one special lady to hand his hose. (Paramount)

Dexter: The Final Season

On Oct. 31, the first (and best) four seasons of Dexter dropped on Netflix. Not to say that Seasons 5, 6, 7 and now 8: The Final Season are completely worthless; however, if you stopped at Season 4, you’d probably be just fine. That’s all. (Showtime)

Man of Steel

Zack Snyder’s re-re-re-boot of Superman, starring Henry Cavill as Kal-El/Clark Kent, the alien super-being sent to Earth to save mankind and battle snooty movie critics. Also starring Amy Adams as the cougar Lois Lane. (Warner Bros.)

Paradise

A Montana hick (Julianne Hough) takes a fat insurance check and hits Las Vegas to live it up, with help from a bartender (Russell Brand), a lounge singer (Octavia Spencer) and director Diablo Cody. So … remember when Juno was a thing? (BBC)

Turbo

A daydreaming snail (Ryan Reynolds) gains super-speed powers and enters the Indianapolis 500 (?), teaching kiddies that no dream is too ridiculous or unattainable as long as corporate animators make it loud and colorful. (DreamWorks)

More New DVD Releases (Nov. 12)

Ambushed, As Night Falls, The Attack, Barbara, A Country Christmas, Dealin’ With Idiots, Duress, Grabbers, Frances Ha, Home Again, MADtv: Season 4, The Naughty List, Prince Avalanche, RWBY: Vol. 1, Silk: Season 1, Turning 30.

Published in TV