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Climate think tank's legality questioned

April 29, 2008|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

California utility regulators overstepped their authority and can't force electricity and natural gas customers to pay for the recently approved $600-million global-warming think tank, according to an opinion issued Monday by the state Legislature's attorneys.

The 14-page opinion was requested by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), who disagreed with the California Public Utilities Commission's decision this month to create the California Institute for Climate Studies using funds from utility ratepayers.

"We have not found either a constitutional or a statutory basis that authorizes the commission to establish the CICS," Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine wrote in her opinion. "We think that a court would hold that the establishment of the CICS by the commission is outside the commission's general constitutional authority to establish rules for, and to fix the rates of, public utilities."

In a hearing Monday on the PUC's budget, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) expressed frustration over the lack of coordination among state agencies in the fight to slow global warming. He accused the PUC of making the situation worse by creating the climate institute "with no legal authority whatsoever."

The institute, approved by the PUC unanimously April 10, would spend $60 million a year for 10 years to accelerate research into ways to quickly cut harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The concept, pushed by PUC President Michael Peevey, enjoyed broad support among the scientific community and won kudos from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After hearing about the legal opinion, Peevey suggested that the report reflected the sentiments of Perata and other critics in the Legislature.

"We went through this at length, with our attorneys, and concluded we are on very solid ground," Peevey said of the decision to create the institute. Referring to the legal opinion, he added, "I'm certainly not very concerned about it."

Customers of Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas Co., Pacific Gas & Electric Co., San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and PacifiCorp will foot the bill through a new surcharge on each kilowatt-hour of electricity and therm of natural gas they use.

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elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

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