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Another dark side to crisis

The emergency seems to have failed to bring out the team spirit in all.

May 6, 2001

By KATE BERRY The Orange County Register

As California faces the worst energy crisis in its history, provincial politics, stubborn corporations and not-in-my- back-yard attitudes are interfering with the state's ability to find a broad solution to its power problems.

During other times of crisis, such as the Northridge earthquake, Californians have pulled together, compromised on their differences, and cooperated for the greater good. But that's not happening with the current energy crisis, experts say.

Historians, political scientists and energy observers say the energy crisis has turned into a public-policy disaster because no one can agree on long-term goals for California's energy future. Various contentious groups, each fiercely protecting its interests, refuse to give an inch.

"In the earthquake, the goal was to survive and help people," said Bruce Cain of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "But with energy, there are too many basic value disagreements. Do you want conservation, or do you build new plants? These are issues that state officials can't resolve, so it produces a stalemate."


An unwillingness to compromise or agree on solutions is widespread. Consider:

Last week, Assembly Republicans voted down a bill to speed the siting of new power plants - a key to easing the power shortage - because of opposition to an amendment that required unemployment costs from blackouts to be shared by all employers.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered new price controls on wholesale electricity for California last week on the condition that the state join a regional transmission organization, or RTO. State officials are resisting the requirement, saying it would give control over the state's power grid to federal regulators.

Pacific Gas & Electric filed for bankruptcy April 6 rather than negotiate a solution to its debt problems with Gov. Gray Davis. The bankruptcy has stalled Davis' plan to bring Southern California Edison and PG&E back to financial health through a state purchase of their transmission lines.

Residents and city officials of Temecula's wine country in Riverside County are fighting plans by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to build a 31-mile transmission line near the Cleveland National Forest.

In South Gate, Mayor Raul Moriel and Vice Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba went on a hunger strike to protest plans for a $320 million power plant in the Los Angeles County city. The plant's developer, Sunlaw Energy Partners, abandoned the project after voters rejected it in a nonbinding March referendum.

Huntington Beach residents and city officials, concerned about air and water quality, fought unsuccessfully to prolong the licensing review process for an AES Corp. plan to restart two idled generating units.

If state government and business leaders don't pull together to solve the problem, a grass-roots ballot initiative in 2002 could take the state into uncharted territory, said Cain, at UC Berkeley.

He compared the energy crisis with two contentious public-policy issues from California's past. One was the decision by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to allow malathion spraying in the 1980s to combat an infestation by the Mediterranean fruit fly. The spraying was an unpopular - but necessary - policy that consumers vigorously opposed.

The decision cost Brown a run for the U.S. Senate and dashed his presidential aspirations, Cain said. That contrasts with Davis' refusal for months to raise electricity rates for fear of political retribution from voters, he said.

A more apt comparison with the current crisis, he said, is Proposition 13, the 1978 state voter initiative that drastically cut property taxes. After legislators failed for months to solve the problem of rising property assessments that forced people out of their homes, citizen advocate Howard Jarvis led the crusade with a ballot initiative.

A similar scenario may play out in the next year or two, Cain said. "It's increasingly looking like the political system won't take the lead on this," he said.


On the front lines of the crisis are cities where new power plants are being built under an executive order from Davis that short-circuits environmental reviews.

Huntington Beach Mayor Pam Julien-Houchen said cities are willing to cooperate if corporate interests would do the same.

"I can't believe there isn't more modern technology that wouldn't pollute the environment," she said of AES's proposal. "Everyone assumes we're a bunch of NIMBYs, but we're not. We have major concerns with 8.5 miles of beaches and 11 million visitors a year."

California itself is stonewalling federal regulators. Unhappy with FERC's price controls and a requirement that the state join a regional transmission organization, California hasn't countered with a long-term proposal of its own.

The divisiveness extends to the state's relationship with its neighbors.

"One of the big problems is that no one's really sure what their interests are, or what they should do," said J.R. DeShazo, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. "If there wasn't so much fragmentation, all the Western states would get together and form a buyer coalition to counter the wholesale price gouging.''

Instead, he said, California is turning isolationist.

"There's been this odd framing of the issue, as though California should be responsible for producing all its own energy," DeShazo said. "California doesn't produce all its own apples; we import them. Energy is no different."

Catherine Mulholland, author of "William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles" (University of California Press), said California's history is steeped in fights over control of water and power.

When San Francisco was hit with blackouts and rationing in the 1920s, state officials drafted the Water and Power Act of 1922, a ballot initiative to wrest control over the supply and pricing of water and electricity from private utilities.

The initiative was defeated in two elections amid fierce opposition from the utilities.

"No one wanted to jump in to take unpopular political stands or rock private interests," said Mulholland, the granddaughter of the California water visionary. "There is a sense of deja vu because that was an attempt to get a master plan in the state that was shot down by political interests."

The current lack of cooperation, including delays in building new power plants, will exacerbate the supply shortage this summer, officials said. California is expected to be 5,000 megawatts short of the 61,000 megawatts needed during peak periods, according to the California Energy Commission. By some estimates, the state expects to endure 30 days of rolling blackouts, typically temporary one-hour interruptions of power.

"It's like a confederacy of dunces, in a way," said Peter Navarro, an energy expert and economics professor at the University of California, Irvine. "Even if these people could come together, they wouldn't know what to do. I see it ending badly, with a massive wealth transfer (to power generators) and rolling blackouts.

"And in two years, when the crisis will be solved because we've built more power plants, all the politicians will start taking credit for it."

-- Martin Thompson (, May 06, 2001

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