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PG&E wins court approval to set up $105 million wildfire assistance fund

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – PG&E Corp may set up a $105 million housing fund for victims of 2017 and 2018 wildfires in California, which set records for devastation and were blamed on the utility’s equipment, the judge overseeing the bankruptcy of the investor-owned power producer ruled on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: A vineyard burns overnight during a wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in Thousand Oaks, California, U.S. November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Creditors, which include wildfire victims, are fighting for funds as PG&E navigates bankruptcy stemming from the blazes and as the state plans for increasingly long and dangerous fire seasons its officials attribute to climate change.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali at a hearing approved a motion by PG&E seeking permission to establish the fund for people who lost homes in the fires and were uninsured or have used up or will exhaust their insurance.

San Francisco-headquartered PG&E sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January in the face of liabilities it estimated at over $30 billion in the aftermath of November’s Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern times.

The Camp Fire killed more than 85 people and destroyed more than 14,600 houses, mobile homes and other housing units, according to California’s Department of Finance.

More than 11,000 of those housing units were lost in the town Paradise, which the Camp Fire leveled.

State fire investigators earlier this month formally determined PG&E’s power lines caused the Camp Fire, the world’s most expensive natural disaster of 2018 with overall losses of $16.5 billion, according to reinsurance company Munich Re.

Montali said at Wednesday’s hearing he wants to see PG&E’s proposed fund up and running as quickly as possible and urged the company and committees for its unsecured creditors and wildfire victims to try to agree on a fund administrator in five days.

“I’ll make sure the process moves forward quickly,” Montali said, adding he would appoint an administrator if PG&E and the committees could not agree on one.

The administrator will develop eligibility requirements and make payments to wildfire victims, PG&E has said in court papers.

According to PG&E, the $105 million for its fund will come from its available cash. The company’s shares were up 3.6% at $19.12 late on Wednesday afternoon.

Lawyers for the wildfire victims had urged a fund of at least $250 million, but Montali said he could only approve or deny PG&E’s motion for its proposed fund.

Montali also approved extensions to PG&E’s so-called exclusive periods in which it is the sole party in its bankruptcy entitled to file a reorganization plan and to seek support for it from stakeholders.

Montali approved four-month extensions urged by PG&E’s unsecured creditors committee instead of the six months the company wanted.

PG&E now has until Sept. 29 to file a plan and until Nov. 29 to round up support for it.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s office had argued extensions should be capped at 75 days to push PG&E to quickly settle wildfire claims and craft a reorganization plan seeking sacrifices from its investors instead of ratepayers.

The committee for wildfire victims had objected to any extensions, arguing PG&E has been stalling for time.

PG&E said the stability of its business would be undermined without more time, adding it needed extensions to determine liabilities it faces from wildfires.

The company also said it needed more time to see if it obtains regulatory and legislative relief from state officials.

They are considering changes to California’s strict liability standard for utilities, which are held accountable for damages caused by their equipment even if negligence was not involved.

Reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco; Editing by Peter Henderson and Matthew Lewis

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Ric Ocasek, singer for The Cars, dies at 75

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(Reuters) – Ric Ocasek, the idiosyncratic lead singer and chief songwriter of the 1970s and 80s hook-heavy hitmakers The Cars, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 75.

FILE PHOTO: Producer Ric Ocasek arrives at the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year tribute honoring Bob Dylan in Los Angeles, California February 6, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo

Ocasek was pronounced dead at his townhouse after someone called 911 about 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT) to report that he was unresponsive, a New York Police Department spokesman said. The cause of death will be determined by the city’s coroner.

His representatives could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

“So sad. Such a great writer, singer, player, producer,” fellow classic rocker Peter Frampton said on Twitter of Ocasek. “My thoughts are with his family. Rest in peace.”

Ocasek, born Richard Theodore Otcasek in Baltimore in 1944, met bass player and future band mate Benjamin Orr after moving to Cleveland for high school.

The pair joined with guitarist Elliot Easton, keyboard player Greg Hawkes and drummer David Robinson to form the Cars in mid-1970s Boston. Ocasek was the main songwriter, sang lead vocals on most songs and played rhythm guitar.

The band’s self-titled debut album, featuring the singles “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll,” reached Number 18 on the Billboard album charts and put them on the leading edge of pop rock.

The Cars scored their first top-20 single, “Let’s Go,” in 1979 and launched a succession of hits throughout the 1980s such as “Shake It Up” and “Drive,” always identifiable through Ocasek’s distinctive vocals.

The band split up in 1988, and Orr died of pancreatic cancer at age 53 in 2000. The surviving members reunited for a final album, “Move Like This,” in 2010.

The band was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

After the final dissolution of the Cars, Ocasek, who often spoke of his dislike for touring, produced dozens of albums, released solo material, wrote poetry and made visual art.

Ocasek was married three times and had six sons, two from each relationship.

His third wife, supermodel Paulina Porizkova, announced in May 2018 that the couple had separated after 28 years of marriage.

Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler and Gerry Doyle

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Ric Ocasek, singer for The Cars, dies at 75: police

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FILE PHOTO: Producer Ric Ocasek arrives at the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year tribute honoring Bob Dylan in Los Angeles, California February 6, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo

(Reuters) – Ric Ocasek, the idiosyncratic lead singer and chief songwriter of the 1980s hook-heavy hitmakers The Cars, died on Sunday at the age of 75, New York police said.

Ocasek was pronounced dead at his Manhattan townhouse after a family called to report that he was unresponsive at around 4 p.m. EDT, a New York Police Department spokesman said.

The cause of death will be determined by the city’s coroner.

Ocasek, born Richard Theodore Otcasek in Baltimore in 1944, met bass player and future bandmate Benjamin Orr after moving to Cleveland for high school. The pair formed the Cars in mid-1970s Boston.

The band’s self-titled debut album, featuring the singles “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll”, reached Number 18 on the Billboard album charts.

The Cars scored their first top-20 single, “Let’s Go,” in 1979 and proceeded to launch a succession of hits throughout the 1980s before breaking up in 1988, followed by Orr’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2000.

The band reunited for a final album, “Move Like This,” in 2010.

Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler

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Trump says U.S. ‘locked and loaded’ for potential response to Saudi oil attack

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday that the United States was “locked and loaded” for a potential response to the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, after a senior official in his administration said Iran was to blame.

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

Trump also authorized the use of the U.S. emergency oil stockpile to ensure stable supplies after the attack, which shut 5% of world production.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump said on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, a senior U.S. official told reporters that evidence from the attack, which hit the world’s biggest oil-processing facility, indicated Iran was behind it, instead of the Yemeni Houthi group that had claimed responsibility.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said there was no evidence the attack came from Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for over four years in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim rival Iran.

“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi dismissed the U.S. allegation it was responsible as “pointless”. A senior Revolutionary Guards commander warned that the Islamic Republic was ready for “full-fledged” war.

“All American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers around Iran are within the range of our missiles,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Commander Amirali Hajizadeh as saying.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran were already running high because of a long-running dispute between the two nations over Iran’s nuclear program that led the United States to impose sweeping sanctions.

Oil prices surged more than 15% at the open on Sunday on worries over global supply and soaring tensions in the Middle East. State oil giant Saudi Aramco said the attack on Saturday had cut output by 5.7 million barrels per day.

The U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said on Sunday there were 19 points of impact in the attack on Saudi facilities and that evidence showed the launch area was west-northwest of the targets – not south from Yemen.

The official added that Saudi officials indicated they had seen signs that cruise missiles were used in the attack, which is inconsistent with the Iran-aligned Houthi group’s claim that it conducted the attack with 10 drones.

“There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate,” the official told reporters.

Riyadh has accused Iran of being behind previous attacks on oil-pumping stations and the Shaybah oil field, charges that Tehran denies, but has not blamed anyone for Saturday’s strike. Riyadh also says Tehran arms the Houthis, a charge both deny.

Richard Nephew, a program director at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said that if Iran was responsible for the attack, it may be as retribution for U.S. sanctions.

“They are making decisions about whether and how to respond to what they see as a massive attack on their interests from the U.S. via sanctions by attacking U.S. interests in turn, and those of U.S. partners they believe are responsible for U.S. policy,” he said.

Aramco gave no timeline for output resumption. A source close to the matter told Reuters the return to full oil capacity could take “weeks, not days”.

Riyadh said it would compensate for the damage at its facilities by drawing on its stocks, which stood at 188 million barrels in June, according to official data.

Trump said that “based on the attack on Saudi Arabia, which may have an impact on oil prices, I have authorized the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, if needed, in a to-be-determined amount sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.”

The Saudi bourse closed down 1.1% on Sunday, with banking and petrochemical shares taking the biggest hit. Saudi petrochemical firms announced a significant reduction in feedstock supplies.

“Abqaiq is the nerve center of the Saudi energy system. Even if exports resume in the next 24 to 48 hours, the image of invulnerability has been altered,” Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told Reuters.

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

According to the U.S. official, 17 structures at Abqaiq sustained damage on their west-northwest facing sides, along with two points of impact at Saudi’s Khurais oil field.

Consultancy Rapidan Energy Group said images of the Abqaiq facility after the attack showed that about five of its stabilization towers appeared to have been destroyed, and would take months to rebuild – something that could curtail output for a prolonged period.

“However Saudi Aramco keeps some redundancy in the system to maintain production during maintenance,” Rapidan added, meaning operations could return to pre-attack levels sooner.

Some Iraqi media outlets said the attack came from there. Baghdad denied that on Sunday and vowed to punish anyone using Iraq, where Iran-backed paramilitary groups wield increasing power, as a launchpad for attacks.

Kuwait, which borders Iraq, said it was investigating the sighting of a drone over its territory and coordinating with Saudi Arabia and other countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned Saturday’s attacks and called on all parties to exercise restraint and prevent any escalation. The European Union warned that the strikes posed a real threat to regional security, and several nations urged restraint.

The attack came after Trump said a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was possible at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this month. Tehran ruled out talks until sanctions are lifted.

But Trump appeared on Sunday to play down the chances he might be willing to meet with Iranian officials, saying reports he would do so without conditions were not accurate.

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Harad, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

As recently as last Tuesday, Pompeo said that Trump “is prepared to meet with no preconditions.”

Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Trump that Riyadh was ready to deal with “terrorist aggression”. A Saudi-led coalition has responded to past Houthi attacks with air strikes on the group’s military sites in Yemen.

The conflict has been in military stalemate for years. The Saudi alliance has air supremacy but has come under scrutiny over civilian deaths and a humanitarian crisis that has left millions facing starvation.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Parisa Hafezi, Saeed Azhar and Hadeel Al Sayegh in Dubai, David Shepardson and Timothy Gardner in Washington, William James in London, John Irish in Paris, Alex Lawler, Julia Payne and Ron Bousso in London, Robin Emmott in Brussels and Devika Krishna Kumar and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Cooney

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