Bankrupt PG&E’s creditors begin deciding future

By KAREN GAUDETTE, The Associated Press
Monday June 17, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — Just as voters soon will decide who runs California, the thousands of creditors owed money by bankrupt Pacific Gas and Electric Co. are getting their chance to help determine the shape of California’s largest utility when it emerges from Chapter 11. 

It’s a crucial point in PG&E’s 14-month bankruptcy. Already in the mail are roughly 74,000 envelopes stuffed with nearly two pounds of voting materials. Creditors ranging from tree trimmers to major banks to power companies will spend the next eight weeks pondering two competing reorganization plans that both promise full payment of the utility’s $13.5 billion debt accrued during the state’s power crisis. 

Otherwise, they paint wildly different outcomes. 

PG&E hopes to transfer billions of dollars worth of transmission lines, power plants and other assets away from state oversight and into three new companies that would be regulated by the federal government, then borrow against those assets to clear its debts. By contrast, a plan from the state Public Utilities Commission would force PG&E, its shareholders and its ratepayers, to generate money to pay the debts. 

Those who’ve been following the bankruptcy expect an all-out battle as PG&E and the PUC vie for support from voters despite putting forward plans that critics say are legally and financially flawed, respectively. 

“This is the most important event in this bankruptcy and will determine the future course of this company and how long and complex and expensive this process is going to be,” said David Huard, a Los Angeles attorney who heads the western chapter of the Energy Bar Association. 

Both PG&E and the PUC say they plan to “reach out” to creditors to promote the benefits of their respective plans. In a bankruptcy, however, persuading creditors to vote against a competitor is as key as garnering votes for the home team’s plan, Huard said. 

On this particular ballot, creditors can vote for one plan, for both plans, or against both plans. They must indicate a preference if they choose both, to help U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali decide the ultimate outcome at what’s called a confirmation hearing. 

If neither plan garners support from half the creditors and those who hold 2/3 of the claims, it’s back to square one, said U.S. Trustee Linda Stanley, who oversees the administration of bankruptcy cases. 

Moving both plans forward to confirmation gives Montali more options when crafting the outcome, Stanley said. 

The official committee of creditors agrees. The committee’s letter tucked within the 1 pound, 11 ounce ballot packet urges creditors to approve both plans, with the caveat that myriad flaws within both leave the committee unable to have a preference. 

For its plan to succeed, PG&E must convince Montali that federal bankruptcy law allows the utility to disregard state rules and regulations that bar it from, among other things, selling or transferring power plants until 2006. 

The PUC, for its part, must convince skeptics on Wall Street that California’s volatile regulatory climate will stabilize, so that investors and credit-rating agencies alike will have faith enough in PG&E’s future to allow it to borrow the billions it needs to pay the bills. 

The ultimate tiebreaker may be whichever path Montali determines is most likely to restore PG&E’s good credit, Huard said. The state is obligated to buy electricity for PG&E’s customers through the end of 2002. But unless PG&E regains its good credit, lawmakers may be forced to extend that deadline.