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California and the West

Governor Names Energy Chief

The panel's interim chairman is nominated to a full term despite Democratic opposition.

January 27, 2006|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday reappointed Joseph Desmond, his top power advisor, as chairman of the California Energy Commission, ignoring warnings from Democratic lawmakers that the free-market advocate would not be confirmed by the state Senate.

Business lobbyists hailed the move as a nod to an energy policy that could help the state avoid blackouts and ensure that its economy is underpinned by reliable, moderately priced electricity.

Schwarzenegger praised Desmond for crafting energy policy that both helps businesses and bolsters the development of renewable power.

"He has done such an extraordinary job that I wouldn't even think about anyone else. He is the man," the governor said. He credited Desmond with helping win approval from the state Public Utilities Commission for a $2-billion solar energy program.

But environmentalists criticized the choice, saying Desmond backed the use of electricity produced by polluting coal-fired plants and tried to resurrect some of the competitive market models that led to the energy crisis of 2000 and 2001.

The five-member Energy Commission sets policy, develops new technologies and approves permits for new power plants. Desmond was named to the commission in May by Schwarzenegger to fill an unexpired term that ended Jan. 6.

If Desmond's reappointment is blocked by the Democrat-controlled Senate, it probably would have little effect on Schwarzenegger's energy policy, which embraces a hybrid of traditional regulated utilities supplying retail customers and private generating companies selling into a competitive wholesale market.

But a political battle over what is seen as a key appointment could reignite the squabbling that lawmakers and the governor have tried to patch over since four initiatives backed by Schwarzenegger were defeated at the polls in November. The governor needs the support of Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) to help round up the votes needed in the Legislature for his massive $222- billion public works construction program.

But Perata in a private talk with the governor in December was emphatic that Desmond would not be confirmed by the Senate, according to numerous sources in the Senate, who declined to be identified because of the political sensitivity of the nomination.

Perata, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, could kill the nomination by refusing to take it up before a May 10 deadline. Perata declined to comment on the Desmond appointment Thursday.

Desmond said he was eager to meet with Perata to explain his record on improving energy reliability, working on power supply and pricing issues and promoting renewable energy sources. He stressed that his views on competitive electricity markets, including letting large users buy power outside the utility grid, were in line with the governor's 10-point energy policy.

Though he's backed a plan to build the so-called Frontier transmission line from Wyoming to California, Desmond said he had since curbed his call to import electricity from coal-fired plants from other Western states.

The Sierra Club said it would fight Desmond's appointment if it came before the Senate.

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Times staff writer Robert Salladay contributed to this report.

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