PG&E guides lower after wildfires; 'Premature to discuss any potential liability,' says CEO

Key Points
  • PG&E cut its earnings forecast for this year due to reinstatement of the electric utility's liability insurance following the Northern California wildfires.
  • It is continuing to cooperate with agencies probing the fires, which damaged or destroyed some 14,700 homes and resulted in 43 deaths.
  • Management estimates restoration and repair costs will range from $160 million to $200 million.
A downed power line and the remains of a home and a car are seen in the Larkfield-Wikiup neighborhood following the damage caused by the Tubbs Fire on October 13, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
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Facing costs from the recent Northern California wildfires, PG&E on Thursday trimmed this year's earnings forecast and said it is continuing to cooperate with agencies investigating the fires.

PG&E, the San Francisco-based electric utility, has already been sued in connection with last month's deadly wildfires in complaints that allege negligence and violations of various utility and safety codes. The wildfires, which started Oct. 8, damaged or destroyed more than 14,700 homes across several counties in Northern California and resulted in the loss of 43 lives.

"It is premature to discuss any potential liability for the recent wildfires given that there has been no determination of the causes of any of the fires," PG&E CEO and President Geisha Williams said during the company's earnings conference call Thursday.

PG&E trimmed its 2017 forecast for GAAP earnings per share to a range of $3.54 to $3.79, from a prior range of $3.36 to $3.56. It left the non-GAAP range of $3.55 to 3.75 per share unchanged, and that compares with the Street's forecast for earnings of $3.67 per share, according to Thomson Reuters.

PG&E said the change in guidance was "primarily due to the reinstatement of the company's liability insurance following the Northern California wildfires, as well as an increase in the expected third-party claims associated with the [2015] Butte fire."

Jason Wells, chief financial officer of PG&E, said during the conference call that the company's current forecast for costs related to restoration and repairs following the recent Northern California wildfires ranges from $160 million to $200 million. The company plans to seek recovery for its restoration activities through the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utilities in the state.

However, the CFO refused on the call to speculate on any potential timing for liability recognition in the wildfire catastrophe, citing an ongoing state probe.

Indeed, the cause of the Northern California wildfires remain under investigation by Cal Fire, a spokesman for the state agency told CNBC on Thursday. The official didn't have an estimate of how long the probe will take although previous wildfire investigations sometimes have taken more than six months.

PG&E said Thursday it was "fully cooperating with Cal Fire and the CPUC in their investigations of these fires." Also, it said in those instances where fire investigators or the utility "identified a site potentially involving our facilities," the company submitted incident reports to the CPUC but added that these reports were "factual in nature and do not reflect a finding of cause."

Previously, PG&E had acknowledged in an Oct. 13 regulatory filing with the SEC it was being investigated by Cal Fire, indicating that the probe includes "the possible role of power lines and other facilities" of its utility subsidiary. Some previous California wildfires have been blamed on fallen trees sparking electrical lines, or down power lines.

During the call, Williams said the utility's service area "experienced a wind event without precedent, with some recorded wind gusts exceeding 75 miles per hour." She also said the area in the wildfire region had "trees weakened by years of drought and other environmental factors."

That said, the CEO added: "This was an extraordinary confluence of events, and right now is simply too early to make an assumption about liability."

An attorney specializing in wildfire lawsuits said last month PG&E could potentially be on the hook for up to $6 billion in damages if found liable for the deadly Northern California wildfires.

That's partly because utilities in California face liability under what's known as inverse condemnation as well as for negligence claims for wildfire and other damaging incidents caused by such things as power lines or other utility equipment.

"California is one of the only states in the country where the courts have applied inverse condemnation liability to events caused by utility equipment," Williams said on the call.

Added the CEO, "We don't believe that inverse condemnation is an appropriate doctrine, nor do we think it is appropriately applied to regulated utilities. We would challenge its application, if that were to be the case in these events."

The utility has previously indicated it has about $800 million in liability insurance for potential losses in connection with the wildfires.

PG&E's general counsel, John Simon, told analysts Thursday at least nine lawsuits have been filed against the company in connection with the recent wildfires. "There may be others to come," he said.

Earlier this year, a California judge ordered PG&E to pay damages in connection with the 70,000-acre Butte fire, a 2015 incident that burned more than 920 structures and caused two fatalites. Cal Fire investigators found the 2015 blaze got "sparked by a tree that came into contact with a Pacific Gas & Electric Company powerline."

More than 2,000 plaintiffs have sued PG&E in connection with the Butte fire.

Earlier Thursday, PG&E said it earned $1.12 a share in the third quarter on a non-GAAP basis. That was better than the 91 cents per share analysts were expecting, according to Thomson Reuters. The company earned 94 cents a share, excluding items, in the year-ago period.

However, PG&E's operating revenue fell to $4.52 billion, lower than both the Street's forecast for $4.82 billion and its year-ago revenue of $4.81 billion.

In trading, PG&E stock was down fractionally in light trading, but it has lost 17 percent since the wildfires.