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California and the West | THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Coalition of Activists Joins Power Debate

Environmentalists, unions and others say they will unveil a 13-point action plan. They want nature and low-income users protected.

February 12, 2001|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A coalition of unions, environmental groups and consumer advocates has jumped into the California energy crisis with its own 13-point blueprint, to be unveiled Tuesday in Sacramento.

Among other things, the plan calls for no retreat on labor and environmental protections, and no rate increases for low- and fixed-income consumers.

It is harshly critical of utilities and power generators, and recommends creating a public power authority for the wholesale market. At the same time, however, the plan says utilities should be saved from bankruptcy, which would "place the fate of our state's power system in the hands of a federal judge, and strip Californians of a voice through our elected officials."

The groups complained that they have been shut out of negotiations toward solving the ongoing crisis, which threatens to bankrupt two major utilities and is draining the state treasury. "Any proposed solution must protect the interests of California's working families and consumers," the coalition said in a five-page outline of its plan.

"Corporate interests seek to capitalize on a crisis mentality to weaken labor and environmental protections," the groups said. "Workers and the environment should not bear the burden of repairing the damage caused by corporate greed and mismanagement."

Pulled together by the California Labor Federation, the coalition includes the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Congress of California Seniors and the Utility Reform Network.

Union members from utilities, as well as from manufacturing firms hurt by a series of power interruptions last month, were represented. The recommendations were developed over the past two weeks, said federation spokeswoman Sharon Cornu.

Some of the suggestions are already in play, such as a call for utilities to turn over transmission lines in exchange for state assistance. Others, including an audit of utilities' books, have already been accomplished.

There are some novel ideas also, such as a three-tiered rate system, with a low-cost base rate, a higher tier for consumption above the base, and a third rate for "excessive consumption."

Another suggestion calls for the California Public Utilities Commission to inspect generating plants to ensure that they are properly maintained--a tricky proposition, because many plants and owners do not fall under the PUC's jurisdiction.

The coalition contends that after power plants were sold under deregulation, new owners cut staff and skimped on maintenance, contributing to current shortages.

There were some mixed messages from the diverse coalition, which includes long-standing critics of the utilities as well as unionized utility employees, who have asked the PUC to stop planned layoffs.

For example, the plan seeks to preserve current employee benefits and union contracts at the utilities, but also recommends that the firms absorb a large share of the multibillion-dollar debt racked up since wholesale energy prices skyrocketed last summer.

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