Another PacifiCorp lawsuit

The federal government plans to sue PacifiCorp for nearly $1 billion in costs related to the 2020 wildfires in southern Oregon and northern California;  the company is trying to negotiate a settlement.

According to an Associated Press report, the pending lawsuits were disclosed in an annual report from the parent company, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, on Monday. The utility company has already agreed to pay hundreds of millions in lawsuits related to the 2020 fires.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy said the Department of Justice is seeking $625 million in suppression and cleanup costs that followed the Archie Creek and Susan Creek fires. Oregon’s Justice Department said it also wants $109 million in damages for those fires, and the Forest Service has asked PacifiCorp for $356 million for suppression and damages over the Slater Fire — which started in California and then burned over the state line into Oregon.

The company estimates that its utilities face at least $8 billion in claims from all the wildfire lawsuits already filed, but damages could be doubled or even tripled in some of those cases.

Other PacifiCorp lawsuits over the Labor Day 2020 fires are detailed HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.

The PacifiCorp website says the company leads in wildfire mitigation, and its system-wide, six-state plan includes in-house emergency management and meteorology and data science teams — and features the installation of over 450 weather stations, grid hardening, fire-risk modeling software, and an “enhanced” vegetation management program.

“The safety of our employees, customers, and communities remains our top priority,” declares PacifiCorp.

Meanwhile in southeast Idaho, renewable energy developer NorthRenew Energy has sold its 300-MW-plus Arco Wind and Solar project in southeast  Idaho to PacifiCorp. This is NorthRenew’s ninth project sale since the company’s inception in 2017.

NorthRenew energy projects
NorthRenew energy projects

Renewables Now reported last week that the project in Bingham and Bonneville counties is designed with a storage capacity of more than 300 MW of wind and solar power, but could be expanded by as much as 800 MW of solar energy in the future. The project acquisition extends PacifiCorp’s diverse mix of generating resources across its system spanning the western states of Oregon, Washington, California, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Another $85 million on PacifiCorp’s liability tab

PacifiCorp will pay another $85 million to nine more victims of the 2020 Labor Day fires, after a jury in Multnomah County on Tuesday recorded the latest verdict in a series of lawsuits that means billions of dollars in liability costs for the Portland-based utility company, according to an AP report.

“PacifiCorp has settled and will continue to settle all reasonable claims for actual damages under Oregon law,” the utility said. The western Oregon fires were among the worst in the state’s history, killing nine people, burning 1.2 million acres, and destroying upward of 5,000 homes and other structures. Though the extreme fires were not unprecedented, the Labor Day fires burned more of the Oregon Cascades than had burned in the previous 36 years combined.

one of the exhibits at PacifiCorp trial
From one of the exhibits at trial establishing PacifiCorp’s liability

A jury in June found PacifiCorp liable for negligence in its failure to de-energize powerlines for its 600,000 customers — after the utility was warned by fire officials and emergency managers that its powerlines had started multiple fires and that there was an emergency need to cut power in at-risk areas because of the extreme fire danger.

Plaintiffs were awarded $71 million in that case.

PacifiCorp agreed last month to pay $299 million to settle a lawsuit by 463 plaintiffs who lost homes and other property in southern Oregon wildfires in September 2020. That jury awarded around $90 million to 17 homeowners. The award on Tuesday was the first of cases brought by plaintiffs in the broader class-action suit. More trials are set for February and April.

2020 Labor Day fires in western Oregon
Labor Day weekend fires in 2020 in western Oregon

Another $250 million for PacifiCorp’s 2020 firestorm liability

PacifiCorp has settled with 10 timber companies in Oregon for $250 million after the utility company was found liable for starting many of the 2020 Labor Day fires.

Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported that for the second time this month, the utility provider will pay out hundreds of millions to end a lawsuit over its negligence in the wind-driven wildfires that started over Labor Day weekend in 2020 in western Oregon.

The settlement will resolve a lawsuit the timber companies brought against the utility for the Archie Creek Complex in west-central Oregon.

2020 Archie Creek Fire
Archie Creek Fire map, 2:35 p.m. PDT Sept. 22, 2020.

On December 5, the Berkshire Hathaway-owned company paid $299 million to settle another lawsuit brought by Oregon residents who lost their homes and property in the same fire, bringing PacifiCorp’s payouts this month to more than a half billion dollars.

[UPDATE 12/21/2023: How much Pacific Power rates are increasing.]

This lawsuit alleged that PacifiCorp’s employees ignored warnings from the National Weather Service and others on Labor Day weekend and decided to not power down its electrical equipment — or fall hazard trees and clear vegetation around powerlines.

“The 2020 wildfires were undeniably tragic,” the company said in a statement, “and PacifiCorp is pleased to resolve this matter on behalf of our impacted customers and communities.”

“I am proud to have recovered fair and full damages for Oregon’s timber industry,” said attorney Mikal Watts. He said that after the Archie Creek Fire had started, a lineman mistakenly re-energized a line after a tree had fallen into it, which ignited another separate fire. He said the timber companies lost of thousands of acres of timberlands in the fires. Watts explained that he hopes to work with PacifiCorp, along with Oregon lawmakers and utility regulators, to create a statewide risk pool for utilities, which would allow people to receive payouts without the need to file lawsuits after a fire. California created a  similar fund in 2019 after the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric caused by its wildfire payouts. A risk pool would be funded up front by utility customers and utilities themselves.

“The Public Utilities Commission ought to work together with this utility to try to recoup these costs to make it go away,” said Watts.

2020 fires aftermath

According to a KATU-TV report, PacifiCorp said this settlement is in addition to others with individuals and businesses that lost homes and other property, plus hundreds of insurance claims that PacifiCorp settled in which homeowners and businesses received insurance payments for damages.

PacifiCorp settles another lawsuit over Labor Day fires

PacifiCorp, an electric utility provider in the Pacific Northwest that was found guilty of gross negligence and recklessness in the 2020 Labor Day fires in Oregon, has agreed to pay $299 million to victims of fires in southern Oregon, according to a report by the Oregonian.

PacifiCorp, which owns Pacific Power, lost a similar lawsuit back in June for causing fires in the northern part of the state. The jury in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland found the utility liable for four of the Labor Day 2020 fires, after its powerlines ignited fires that burned about 2,500 properties in western Oregon. The 12-person jury determined that PacifiCorp was negligent for causing the Santiam, Echo Mountain, South Obenchain, and 242 fires after a 7-week class action trial. (The final verdict in that trial is posted on our DOCUMENTS page.)

2020 Labor Day fires
GOES-17 photo of smoke from wildfires in Washington, Oregon, and California at 5:56 p.m. PDT Sept. 8, 2020. This image was captured during the strong east wind event. NASA photo

A year ago, PacifiCorp settled another case out of court with two families who sued over the Archie Creek Fire, which burned more than 130,000 acres in Douglas County in 2020.

Tuesday’s settlement is unprecedented in Oregon and wraps up a 3-year legal battle that has financially and emotionally exhausted residents who lost homes and property in the firestorm.

The Archie Creek Fire leveled  communities along the North Umpqua River east of Roseburg, and it was just one of numerous huge fires ignited during the Labor Day weekend windstorms.

The Labor Day fires collectively burned more than 1.2 million acres in Oregon, destroyed upwards of 5,000 homes and structures, and killed nine people. PacifiCorp, Oregon’s second largest utility, did not shut down power to any of its 600,000 customers during the windstorm — despite the fact they were repeatedly warned by emergency officials to power down their lines, which were implicated in six separate fires.

Archie Creek Fire map
Archie Creek Fire map, 2:35 p.m. PDT Sept. 22, 2020.

Some 220 families and individuals sued, alleging negligence that caused the Archie Creek Fire. The $299 million settlement amounts to an average of about $1.35 million per family in the lawsuit, though individual claims vary widely. Victims will pay attorneys’ fees, estimated at 30 to 40 percent of the settlement. The settlement agreement avoids a consolidated trial that was scheduled for January 30 and shields PacifiCorp from much larger jury awards that would likely have included punitive damages.

The company had asked state regulators to protect it from the costs of future lawsuits over destructive wildfires; in the request to the Oregon Public Utility Commission in June, PacifiCorp also wanted ratepayers to pay for $90 million the jury found the company liable for. That request drew harsh criticism from wildfire victims, lawyers, and ratepayer advocates, who questioned the company’s motives and the proposal’s legality.

According to a report by The Hill, PacifiCorp said the settlement amounts are consistent with those previously estimated and established in accounting reserves for the wildfires. “PacifiCorp has settled and is committed to settling all reasonable claims for actual damages as provided under Oregon law,” the company said in a statement.

2020 Labor Day fires in western Oregon
09/13/2020 — the Labor Day fires were among the worst natural disasters in Oregon’s history. They killed nine people, burned more than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers) and destroyed upwards of 5,000 homes and other structures.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers in the Labor Day fires’ litigation have criticized the utility for legal obstruction — instead of promptly settling with victims. They’ve sought legal sanctions against the company for withholding information  about the origins of the fires, denying access to investigations after the fires, and limiting what employees could say in depositions.

courtroom exhibit in the PacifiCorp trial

The company still faces numerous lawsuits related to the 2020 fires, including a trial scheduled for January for seven timber companies that lost property in the Archie Creek Fire — their claims were not part of this week’s settlement.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Steffan Alexander has scheduled three trials early in 2024 to consider damages for another 20 plaintiffs; he has ordered the company and more than 1000 other plaintiffs into mediation — which  could dramatically increase the utility’s financial liability. Total damages sought in lawsuits related to the 2020 fires is about $8 billion.

PacifiCorp now wants protection from fire victims

Oregon’s second-largest electricity provider wants state regulators to protect it from the costs of future lawsuits seeking reimbursement from destructive wildfires.

The Oregonian reported that PacifiCorp’s request to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) was made just months after the utility lost a massive lawsuit in Multnomah County over its negligence in Oregon’s catastrophic Labor Day fires of 2020. More lawsuits are still pending with plaintiffs seeking billions of dollars in damages. In June after the trial, the company wanted ratepayers to pay for $90 million a jury found PacifiCorp liable for, after it had started numerous fires and burned miles of forest and thousands of homes in the 2020 fires. (The final verdict [PDF] in the PacifiCorp trial is posted on our DOCUMENTS page.) The jury in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland found PacifiCorp  — which owns Pacific Power — liable for four of the devastating Labor Day 2020 fires that burned about 2,500 properties in western Oregon.

One of the 2020 fires overran the ICP.

PacifiCorp’s new request drew harsh criticism from wildfire victims, lawyers, and ratepayer advocates, who questioned the company’s motives and the proposal’s legality. The financial protections PacifiCorp is seeking, in addition to assuming that future fires will be started by the utility company, would “only apply prospectively,” the company told state regulators. Simon Gutierrez with PacifiCorp said the request would have no impact on ongoing litigation.

PacifiCorp has already asked state regulators to let it pass the cost of damages it owes for wildfires in 2020 on to its customers.

2020 Labor Day fires in western Oregon
09/13/2020 — the Labor Day fires were among the worst natural disasters in Oregon’s history. They killed nine people, burned more than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers) and destroyed upwards of 5,000 homes and other structures.

A report by OPB back in June said that PacifiCorp had asked the PUC to allow the utility to defer the wildfire liability costs  through June 2024, which would give the company the option to add those costs to customers’ rates in the future.

“The deferred accounting application enables Pacific Power to preserve its ability to seek recovery in the future in the event the outcome could impact the financial stability of the company, which would result in higher costs to customers,” said the PacifiCorp attorneys.

A class action lawsuit is still ongoing; jurors found that PacifiCorp could be liable for punitive damages to thousands of Oregonians who lost property in the Echo Mountain Complex and the Santiam Canyon, South Obenchain, and 242 fires. The company estimates those costs could total billions of dollars.

PacifiCorp has now asked the Oregon PUC to limit future lawsuit awards  to “actual” damages for property and loss of life. As a condition of receiving electric service, customers would have to waive their right to other damages (such as non-economic and punitive awards by juries), like the awards that the county jury stung the utility with in June after it found Pacific Power’s  conduct was grossly negligent, reckless, and willful.

courtroom exhibit in the PacifiCorp trial

The utility filed the same request in Washington, California, Idaho, and Wyoming — where it also provides power. PacifiCorp says limiting damages from wildfire lawsuits would protect customers from higher costs.

Meanwhile, PacifiCorp is one of three energy suppliers receiving $450 million in funds from the federal government. OPB reported that two Oregon utilities and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs together will receive nearly $450 million from the federal government to modernize the region’s power grid and incorporate more renewable energy. The investment will allow PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric, and the tribe to boost transmission capacity and job training and fortify the electric grid from the dangers of wildfires.

2020 Beachie Creek Fire

PacifiCorp will match the federal funds allocated for its projects, according to Rohit Nair, the company’s director of engineering standards and grid modernization.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure significant federal funding for programs that support our customers,” he said, “especially those in historically underrepresented and marginalized communities.” The funding is part of a total $3.5 billion the Biden administration announced in mid-October for states to upgrade their electric grids to make them more resilient to climate disasters and to support clean energy development.

2020 Beachie Creek Fire

But while PacifiCorp moves forward with upgrading its infrastructure, it’s also asking the PUC to protect it from future lawsuits after utility-caused wildfires.

“This proposal is grossly beyond the pale,” said Sam Drevo, one of 17 named plaintiffs who were collectively awarded $90 million in economic, non-economic, and punitive damages in back in June. “As a wildfire victim who lost everything in fires that were caused by PacifiCorp’s equipment, non-economic and punitive damages are the only punishment available in the legal system to stop negligent behavior from happening again,” he said. “I am shocked by this disgusting proposal and hope it falls flat with the PUC.”

Lee Beyer, a longtime Oregon legislator and former PUC chair, said PacifiCorp’s assertion that the request would benefit ratepayers is questionable. He believes it’s unlikely the commission would allow PacifiCorp to pass the legal costs on to customers.

“Any costs coming out of a court case are generally the responsibility of the utility and its shareholders,” Beyer said.

Bob Jenks, executive director of the ratepayer advocacy group Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board, questioned whether the PUC even has the legal authority to grant PacifiCorp’s request. Asking ratepayers to waive their legal remedies as a condition of accepting service from a local monopoly is pretty extreme, he said. “It’s incredibly broad and raises a number of fundamental legal questions.”

PG&E plan to bury lines is shot down

Pacific Gas & Electric — one of the nation’s largest utilities whose equipment has ignited some of California’s deadliest wildfires — wants to bury powerlines in some of its most at-risk areas to prevent fires like the 2018 Camp Fire, started by PG&E lines, that killed 85 people and burned the town of Paradise to the ground. Estimated total cost of the Camp Fire was about $422 billion.

11/08/2018 Camp Fire, NASA satellite image.

But state regulators are balking at the utility’s plan, the Associated Press reported, because it would take too long and cost an estimated $5.9 billion. The company’s customers, who already pay some of the highest rates in the country, would have to foot the bill.

UPDATE 10/18/2023:   According to a KEZI-TV report, Pacific Power recently announced it will receive $150 million in federal grant funding to improve its infrastructure for grid resilience and wildfire mitigation. The funding is from the U.S. Department of Energy, with just under $100 million earmarked for PacifiCorp’s grid resiliency project to reduce the effects of extreme weather on the grid serving disadvantaged communities at highest wildfire risk. An additional $50 million is earmarked for PacifiCorp’s Resiliency Enhancement for Fire Mitigation and Operational Risk Management project.

Regulators want PG&E to put protective covers over many of its overhead powerlines instead of burying them. The cover approach is cheaper, but riskier. PG&E says that burying a powerline reduces the chance it will start a fire by 99 percent because it can’t be blown down by windstorms. The protective cover would reduce that chance by just 62 percent.

tree limb on lines
Vegetation can cause faults and fires electrically. Distribution Fault Anticipation can detect this type of vegetation fault before the dangerous situation escalates. (Texas A&M Engineering) reported that the company is hoping to bury 2,100 miles of powerlines by 2026. But the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), whose members are appointed by the governor, has not signed off on the plan, out of concerns about the estimated cost.

The Manteca Bulletin reported that customers would be expected to pay PG&E at least $40 more per month; the burying plan was put forth after the utility’s lowest rates were increased 170 percent or more since 2006.

PG&E originally wanted a 26 percent increase, and is now asking for an 18 percent increase. The PUC said they’d consider a maximum of 13 percent.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after it faced more than $30 billion in damages for wildfires started by its equipment. The company prefers the burying plan, which it filed with state regulators last year.The PUC will likely decide the issue in November.