Californias can freeze in the dark

Posted: Jan 27, 2001 12:00 AM
"As far as we're concerned, you Californians can freeze in the dark,'' someone at an Idaho inauguration party told me last week in D.C. Later, a lobbyist opined that the California Dream entails yuppies yakking on cell phones and e-mailing on laptops charged by cheap energy generated in less -- shall we say refined? -- states. This week, GOP Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon said he feared his state might become an "energy farm to California.'' In 1999, California got about one-fifth of its electricity from out of state. While California pols moan about out-of-state price gougers and spiking electricity prices, politicians from other states aren't steeped in sympathy. This is not to say that no sympathy is due to poor families and small businesses that are stuck absorbing high prices, or that energy companies aren't price gouging, or that the utility companies are blameless. But: It's hard for D.C. pols to feel a need to bail out a state that has benefited mightily from a high-tech economy that racheted up electricity demand while voters keep electing politicians who oppose local power plants and tell their constituents they deserve to enjoy the same lower utility rates paid in states that do power right. According to a recent Field Poll, 57 percent of Californians see the state's energy crisis as a scheme to raise energy rates -- as if shortages have nothing to do with the problem. The Field Poll also showed that 53 percent of voters blame former Gov. Pete Wilson for the crisis, because he pushed through California's 1996 energy deregulation bill, while 43 percent blame Gov. Gray Davis. "My reaction is to say that I fully accept the credit for being the driving force for deregulation,'' Wilson responded this week. He added that the Legislature approved the deregulation bill without a dissenting vote in 1996, when the state enjoyed a hefty energy surplus. Deregulation, Wilson argued, didn't create today's energy woes. Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio disagreed. He said deregulation created "anxiety'' that spooked potential investors and power-plant builders. Maybe, maybe not. There's still a shortage, and there will be a shortage until California has more power. So what is Davis going to do about it? The California Energy Commission has approved nine power plants since Davis was elected in 1998. In August, His Graydom issued an executive order to speed up the approval process for power plants and asked the commission to write new regulations. That's good, but when asked whether Davis had tried to lean on San Jose pols to approve a proposed power plant in Coyote Valley -- which they nixed -- Maviglio said, "It's not the role of state government to butt in on a local dispute.'' (Meanwhile, Davis keeps going to Washington to get the Feds to butt in on state business.) Davis isn't even getting his nails dirty. Wilson is not impressed. He likens the situation to what he faced after the 1994 Northridge earthquake destroyed bridges on L.A.'s freeways. Contractors warned it could take more than two years to repair the bridges, but Wilson wanted fast results, he used his emergency powers and 84 days after the quake, the Santa Monica Freeway re-opened. How many blackouts will it take before Davis realizes he needs to treat blackouts that can tank this economy as an emergency?