Published on Tuesday, May 29, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Bush's First California Visit Not So Welcome
by Medea Benjamin
THIS WEEK, President Bush is making his first visit to California at a
time when consumers have been socked with hefty electric rate increases, and
$70 million is being drained from our state budget each day as we buy
wholesale energy at outrageous prices.
If Bush were serious about helping Californians, he would immediately tell the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, to do its job. FERC's legal mandate is to ensure that wholesale electricity prices are "just and reasonable." But current wholesale prices are not just and reasonable, and they are completely divorced from costs.
FERC has been ideologically fixated on the free market while ignoring the reality that companies controlling California's energy supply are manipulating the market to make obscenely high profits at our expense.
During the past several months, the news media have unveiled how generators are turning power plants on and off as often as several times an hour; taking plants off line for "unscheduled maintenance," and simply refusing to sell California power. Investigators have determined that these energy companies have deliberately gouged consumers to the tune of billions of dollars.
State Senate figures show that profits of these energy companies rose more 500 percent between 1999 and 2000.
If President Bush wanted FERC to control wholesale prices through a system of cost-plus pricing, it would happen overnight.
When it comes to long-term solutions, Bush's energy policy dangerously promotes a continued reliance on polluting fossil fuels and a resurgence of unsafe nuclear energy. Bush pays lip service to smart, sustainable solutions such as solar, wind and other sources of renewable energy, and to energy savings derived from conservation and improved efficiency.
Technologies proven to be dirty, dangerous and expensive will get the lion's share of taxpayer subsidies, while the 2002 federal budget slashes funding for solar research by more than 50 percent, with major cuts in funding for geothermal, hydrogen and biomass technology, and fuel cell research.
If the Bush administration were to make sustainable energy sources a priority, technologies such as wind, solar and some types of biomass could solve our long-term energy needs. While such a policy is anathema to oil, coal and utility industry leaders, it is central to any forward-looking energy strategy.
The sensible responses to the energy crisis are clear: Control prices now and rely on renewable energy and conservation in the future.
It is up to us to let the president know he can't kowtow to the energy industry interests. Hopefully, he'll respond to the angry Californians he will hear this week.
Medea Benjamin is founding director of Global Exchange, a San Francisco corporate accountability organization.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle