Juice: Transit of Legislation

By Published On: June 8, 2012

Some dance with the stars, some track celebrity planets, but they were all outshined by Venus’s slow dance with the sun. The rare June 6 transit was a reminder of the universe up high and how little attention most of us pay to the real constellations. Venus transcending reminded me of the mind-boggling complexity of the twinkling heavens above--a phenomenon only astronomers and science wonks grasp. In our rarified energy universe below, stars are far and few. Sadly, the number of legislative stars--those with solid grasps on energy and utility issues-- has seriously faded the last decade. The dwindling energy sparkle impacts the shape and direction of the industry. The halcyon energy days coincided with the trauma of the 2000-01 energy crisis. There were the articulate Senators Byron Sher, Debra Bowen and the mercurial Steve Peace. Bowen, former chair of the Senate Energy, Utilities, & Communications Committee, remarked how she initially thought energy issues would be as comprehensible as the galaxy. She enthusiastically ascended the learning curve, not hesitating to give utility and energy company lobbyists a run for their money during legislative debates. The unflappable Sher authored the groundbreaking 20 percent renewable mandate in 2002. The former Stanford law professor also launched the public purpose energy research and development program. He didn’t allow well-funded and loud voices to eclipse his efforts. Today there are few legislators with that level of fluency and commitment. Those with a solid grasp of the energy and climate systems are limited largely to Senators Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), Rod Wright (D-Los Angeles) and Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima). Most of the other lawmakers don’t take the time to look skyward. That is not to say that politics isn’t politics. Special interests always push their agenda, seeking a market advantage today, 10 or 100 years ago. It also wasn’t all sunny skies in the late ‘90s and in early 2000. Peace, who had moments of brilliance, coauthored the disastrous deregulation bill that he rammed through the Legislature. In the other house was the verbose Assemblymember Wright. He knew his stuff but while chairing the Assembly Utilities & Commerce Committee was notorious for his long-winded, rambling diatribes. Unlike today, the discourse on energy issues in Sacramento was often unpredictable, and more dynamic. The differences are in no small part attributable to the current polarization of politics. It’s unlikely that there would be a state climate protection law, or renewables mandate today because there is not the same kind of leadership. But there also wouldn’t be any deregulation bill. The lack of legislation overhauling the energy market keeps strapped agencies with expertise in energy and climate matters from being told what to do by lawmakers, most of whom have little or no understanding of the industry. At the same time, the lack of attention on energy matters gives utility lobbyists more clout, seriously overshadowing the public interest. A few days before Venus’ trek, Democratic lawmakers sent to the exploratorium on the other side of the aisle legislation tapping into $1 billion in potential carbon trading auction revenues. Other measures initially passing their chambers of origin provide better oversight and utility handling of emergencies, to minimize natural gas pipeline accidents and extended blackouts. However, legislative efforts this session seeking to improve accountability at the California Public Utilities Commission faded like falling stars. The main Assembly and Senate vehicles for determining how the California Air Resources Board carbon auction revenue is spent--with the first auction set for this November--are bills by Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and Pavley, expected to be merged at the end of session. Lawmakers this session have also responded to justifiable public concern about utilities’ responses to disasters. Much of it stemmed from Pacific Gas & Electric’s natural gas pipeline explosion in 2010 that killed eight and leveled 38 homes in San Bruno. Concerns were exacerbated by Southern California Edison’s slow restoration of power and deficiencies in coordinating with local emergency response personnel following a hurricane force wind storm in Southern California late last year. Both incidents--plus earlier, less high profile disasters--raised concern not only about the utilities, but also the California Public Utilities Commission charged with overseeing them to assure public safety. In response, also twinkling in the legislative sky are some bills aimed at changing the nature of the relationship between the public and local government on the one hand, and utilities and the CPUC on the other. Lawmakers are largely a product of their times. There is nothing like a crisis or rare event--be it an explosion, blackouts, or soaring energy prices or planets--to motivate legislators to gaze upwards and ascend steep learning curves. The current constellation of legislators should stop, step back, and gaze at our surrounding universe--in particular the climate challenges. Studying energy is a worthy use of a politician’s time given its critical role in our society, the billions of dollars at stake, and huge impact on our environment. State lawmakers should take their lead from their predecessors like Sher and Bowen, who were independent thinkers, tackled the complexities of the energy market, and were guided by the greater good. They may not dance with the stars, but today’s forward thinking legislators would shine far more brightly.

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