Emissions

Commentary: Toxins from Calif. spill over industry barriers

Jan. 10, 2001—It�s becoming more and more difficult to restrain the overflow from California�s nasty energy mess.

The residual fallout from these months of screaming media lip service and chaotic quick fixes is only now beginning to be felt.

While headlines still trumpet political agendas from Gov. Gray Davis as well as a rotating round of state representatives and senators—and while even more high energy bills (months after the supposedly heat-induced problems of this summer) rack up on the collective meter—actions even more far-reaching are being set into motion behind the scenes.

People are losing their jobs, and the overwhelming source of the problem can be traced right back to the deregulation woes in California, either directly or indirectly.

Southern California Edison, one of the utilities embroiled in the current stew of deregulation, made it public knowledge this week that they will cut costs by cutting jobs, to the tune of 1,450. This comes on top of an already announced 400.

No one would tell you that these workers were laid off for any other reason than deregulation. It�s an unfortunate side effect of paying more for your product than you�re allowed to sell it at. These utilities, PG&E included, cannot possibly stay afloat in such an environment.

And while a good number of angry consumers and activists might spit the word �good� after hearing that statement, we must all realize that—as Southern California Edison is so blatantly revealing—companies are made up of individuals: Employees with families to feed and car payments. These people are suffering as much as the collective company, if not more. These people are feeling the effects of a disastrous deregulation policy that they neither agreed to nor ratified.

Not only are these people now nipped in the wallet by deregulation, but this layout comes after months of deregulation-related abuse. Angry consumers do not phone a nameless, faceless entity when complaining about their bill; they phone an underpaid customer service representative. I cannot imagine how difficult his job has been in the last few months. Nor can I possibly comprehend the comments a lineman must receive in the course of his job lately. These are the people who are doubly victimized by California�s restructuring fumble.

And after all of this, they are unemployed.

But, they are not alone. Deregulation has led to indirect layoffs as well. Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. curtailed a Washington smelter to sell its power back to the Bonneville Power Administration at a profit. The BPA, a government run power marketer serving the Pacific Northwest, is required to sell power to the company at $22 per MWh, according to a 1996 contract. Kaiser, however, can sell that power back to the BPA according to market price, thus making a tidy profit without the need to actually produce anything.

And if you produce nothing, you don�t need people to build, inspect or ship that nothing. So, Kaiser has laid off 400 hourly workers, shutting down the Washington smelter completely. Yet another nasty side effect of the West Coast�s out-of-whack power market. If this company was alone in its loophole thinking, I wouldn�t be so incredibly concerned. However, other companies are following in the same no-production/high-profit footsteps.

While the immediate profit is indeed hypnotizing, the probable ripple effect of these decisions frightens me. We are, once again, not adding up the equation to its final outcome. Isn�t that what led us into this restructuring whirlpool in the first place?

I�m sorry to see thousands of people losing jobs to the suction of that whirlpool with us still no closer to a solution. I guess we haven�t really learned a thing.

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