Commentary: A game of California finger pointing

Politicians, industry and consumers to blame

Associate Editor

HIGH demand + LOW supply = HIGH prices

It worked for Beanie Babies™, Furbys™ and Cabbage Patch™ Dolls, it works for electricity too when you make it an open market.

When my mother couldn’t get me to do just exactly as she wanted fast enough, she’d label me stubborn, which was always inevitably followed by “just like your father.”

When my father was angry with me, he would call me the same, and then add, “you get that from your mother.”

It reminds me of California: the finger pointing, the lack of personal responsibility. You see — let me tell you a little secret here — both of my parents were stubborn (which is exactly where I got it).

And so are the parents of the current California energy “emergency” — for lack of a better word — which isn’t really an emergency at all, simply an unfortunate series of bad decisions, amazing natural wonders and Murphy’s Law.

Murphy’s Law is ingrained in the American psyche; we’ve chosen to accept it. (We’ve also chosen to whine about it.) No blame there. And, natural law — well, it’s natural law. Period. Placing responsibility for heat waves can only be thrown back to Mother Nature, God, Allah or whichever higher power you choose to invest in. No one can take personal credit for it being 113 degrees here in Oklahoma during what should be an Indian summer (although I wouldn’t mind a target for my stones).

So we’re left with the first ingredient in the mix: bad decisions. That’s the trade floor for all the California blame. Politicians claim they were misled by the industry, the industry claims deregulation isn’t a perfect process (and it isn’t) while trying to shuffle that blame back onto the politicians. All the while, the consumer groups are screaming like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, “Off with her head!”

It’s a scream that echoes well among both consumers and constituents (they’re often one and the same). But it’s shooting fish in a barrel — and a rather garish scene at that.

We’ll dismiss the consumer groups. They’ve got no real power anyway, so who can blame them for anything more than causing — or contributing — to the ruckus. Amid the flurry of urgent, nearly Romance-novel-passionate press releases is just a backbone of smoke and mirrors. I have no patience for Siegfried and Roy today.

Moving on, let’s talk about the politicians. And may I make one request of them? Get down on one knee in the middle of a crowded San Diego intersection and beg for forgiveness. You had to see this coming. Don’t keep passing the buck back to the utilities as if this is entirely a huge game of hot potato. Take a stand. Get some spine. (Do you hear me Senator Peace?)

And I have one single question about those retroactive quick fixes (capping and retrofitting the price like legislative SCR technology) as well: Where is the money coming from? Unless I’m missing the point here, this is a great shell game.

You’re paying back San Diego ratepayers with taxpayer money, but the source is still the same: the average Californian. Well, of course, except for the money that companies like Sempra (the SDG&E parent) will be simply flushing down the great toilet of deregulation hype (somewhere between $600 and $900 million for Sempra alone is the current estimate).

But, really, the energy industry isn’t entirely without blame here. Own up. Don’t be slapping your thighs in glee just yet: You too should have seen this coming.

While I realize that attempting to talk to politicians over and over again (this is a multiple-year process) is rather akin to that “boy who cried wolf” story, the wolf did eventually bare its teeth and pounce.

And you sat back in glee and watched-with popcorn and binoculars-until he turned on you too. Yes, you had every right to say that politicians were too busy selling a package of goods (the amazing deregulation: rates will be lower, life will be better) to see the holes that needed to be mended, but now the bad publicity is coming back to bite you in the derriere. You need to shoulder some blame as well.

And finally, I want to talk directly to the consumer — the supposedly informed consumer who sided with deregulation until the road got bumpy. You let yourself be bamboozled, no matter what you may say about this industry or those politicians. You had dollar signs in your eyes and wanted to reap the rewards. Don’t cocoon yourself in self-righteousness and consumer advocacy and, yet again, bury your heads in the sand.

Did you ask about this policy before the vote? Did you bother to question whether SDG&E had any real options before picketing outside Sempra’s corporate office? Did you ask Senator Peace what went wrong, specifically? And finally, have you asked Denise Ducheny, author of AB 1156 which sets aside $150 million for relief from those high electric bills — the delicate questions: Where’s the money coming from, who controls it, where’s it going?

One of my favorite Americans said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Is it you?

Kathleen Davis is an Associate Editor for Electric, Light & Power magazine, a PennWell Publication. She can be reached at [email protected].