SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The largest utility in the U.S. has filed for bankruptcy as it faces billions of dollars in potential damages from wildfires in California.
Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. filed documents in a U.S. court on Tuesday, Jan. 29, seeking Chapter 11 reorganization. The move comes despite state investigators determining last week that the utility's equipment was not to blame for a 2017 fire that killed 22 people in Northern California wine country.
The company cited hundreds of lawsuits from victims of that blaze and others in 2017 and 2018 when it announced this month that it planned to file for bankruptcy.
It's already facing lawsuits over a November blaze in the town of Paradise that killed at least 86 people and destroyed 15,000 homes, though its cause is still under investigation.
So the big question - how will this affect the most vulnerable people in this situation? We're talking about PG&E's customers, employees, shareholders, vendors and retirees.
Here's what we found out:
Your power and gas will stay on
Chapter 11 allows a company to keep operating while the courts decide what to do with all that piled up debt.
In a letter to customers, PG&E wrote, "The power and gas will stay on: We will continue to provide you with reliable electric and natural gas service, and that will not change as a result of this process. To be very clear, we are not 'going out of business,' and there will be no disruption in the services you expect from us.
SF Mayor London Breed: "People will still have complete access to power in their homes, their businesses, and throughout our City."
Your PG&E bill could increase (significantly)
When PG&E filed for bankruptcy during the 2001 energy crisis, customers ended up paying around $1,300 to $1,600 dollars in higher rates.
Customers are still paying for that today.
If you look at your bill there's a line item listed under "DWR Bond Charge". That's the money you're still paying for that energy purchased by the state 18 years ago.
OR... Your PG&E bill could decrease
This time around, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) bases rates on how much a utility spends to provide those services.
If debt is forgiven and PG&E's expenses drop, your electric rates could drop, too.
Of course, there could be massive borrowing between now and then and that could erase any potential savings.
Wildfire victim compensation payments will be impacted
Bankruptcy means those lawsuits will be put on hold until a plan is sorted out.
Attorney Frank Pitre, who represents several Camp Fire victims, expects a delay for his clients to be compensated, but he believes they will still get the same settlements.
Some experts worry that the victims may never get compensated.
With a bankruptcy, all debt before the filing are up for grabs and creditors get a first shot at the cash.
Charitable giving to the community is on hold
The utility stated that it's granted more than $100 million to community organizations since 2000, including $28 million in 2018 alone.
PG&E says all of that is now on hold.
In the letter released to customers the day they filed for bankruptcy, PG&E also said:
"Safety must and will come first: Throughout this process, we will continue to prioritize safety, and the necessary steps and actions that must be taken to make the energy system you depend on safer."
"Helping communities recover and rebuild: We will continue to assist communities affected by the devastating Northern California wildfires. Our extensive restoration and rebuilding efforts will continue."
They will still get paid and receive healthcare benefits
PG&E said in a statement that employees will still get paid during the bankruptcy proceedings.
The utility also said they do not expect any changes to the company's tax qualified pension plan or to health & life insurance benefits for retirees.
But they did they would have more information later on an impact to the Company's "non-tax-qualified" pension plans.
But in the long run, their pensions and benefits could be at risk
With Chapter 11 bankruptcy, companies can seek to modify labor agreements.
That would allow PG&E to change employee pension plans and benefits.
Bankruptcy courts could also completely nullify a collective bargaining agreement.
But union leaders believe those changes are unlikely to happen.
In the 2001 bankruptcy, PG&E filed a motion to confirm the union agreements and maintain staffing levels. Union leader seem hopeful that will happen again.
The 2017 state wildfire bill (SB 901) also included some protections for workers if PG&E filed for bankruptcy.
The bill's language states the PUC will seek a plan that's "fair and reasonable to affected public utility employees."
PG&E released this document about the impact on its employees.
Shareholders could end up getting completely wiped out
Shareholders will be hurt. How badly depends on what the courts decide.
However it's not unthinkable that stockholders could lose half or even all of their worth.
The price PG&E's stock went up more than 2 percent the day the filing was announced. The stock price plummeted to a little more than $5 in early January. It traded at more than $47 in November, before details emerged about the utility's potential role in the latest wildfires.
Shareholders will keep losing out on dividends
During the 2001 bankruptcy, investors lost out on about $1.7 billion in dividends.
PG&E already suspended dividends in 2017 in response to the North Bay wildfires.
'We intend to pay vendors and suppliers'
Note that said "intend" not "will." In a letter to their vendors and suppliers, PG&E wrote, "We intend to pay vendors and suppliers under normal terms for goods and services provided on or after the filing date of January 29, 2019. In addition, in conjunction with the filing, we filed a motion seeking interim and final approval of the Court to enter into an agreement for $5.5 billion in new financing that we expect will allow us to meet our obligations during the Chapter 11 process."
'Our operations are continuing as normal'
In a letter to their vendors and suppliers, PG&E wrote, "We do not expect any impact to electric or natural gas service for our customers, and we plan to continue to make investments to upgrade our systems, infrastructure and critical safety efforts."
Maybe no changes?
In a letter to retirees, PG&E wrote, "For our retirees, we do not expect any changes to the company's tax-qualified pension plan or to health or life insurance benefits. As always, to the extent changes are contemplated or required that might impact you or your benefits, we will notify you in a timely manner."
See more stories, photos and videos on PG&E.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.