Utility fees sought for climate think tank

August 26, 2008|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — With this year's legislative session in its final days, lawmakers Monday unveiled a bill mandating new fees from electricity ratepayers to fund a University of California-run global warming research center.

The surcharge, amounting to $37 million a year for up to a decade, would be paid by customers of regulated utilities such as Southern California Edison Co. and publicly owned ones, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The fees would partially fund an $87-million-a-year Climate Change Research and Workforce Development Institute, whose location has yet to be decided.

If it becomes law, the bill would add an average of 10 cents a month to electricity bills statewide, backers said.

The proposal, the product of weeks of closed-door negotiations, hits customers of Edison and two other investor-owned utilities with lower fees than a similar plan the California Public Utilities Commission approved in April.

"Dealing with the enormous problems and concerns about global warming may be the biggest challenge of our generation," said Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), a cosponsor of the bill. "The only way to deal with this challenge is to focus our energy and intellectual capital."

On Monday, the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee approved the bill on a 7-3 vote. It still must win the backing of another committee and both the Assembly and Senate before the Legislature hits a deadline for the passage of bills that are not related to the still-pending state budget.

The bill, SB 1762 by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), is backed by the University of California, the California State University system and the University of Southern California, which could benefit from sharing nearly $900 million in research grants in the first 10 years.

The institute is expected to focus its academic work on four areas, with the aim of bolstering California's drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2025. It plans to develop emissions-cutting technology, research ways to switch to a low-carbon economy, fine-tune forecasts of climate change effects and foster industries that provide high-tech "green" jobs.

Ratepayer advocates are unenthusiastic about piling new fees on residential consumers but say they don't oppose the Perata bill.

"Anything funded through rates is a concern for us, especially in the economic conditions we're in now," said Mindy Spatt of the San Francisco-based Utility Reform Network. "We're seeing more and more shut-offs and expect the situation to get worse."

Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego, said he saw "no compelling need" for the new research center and predicted it would duplicate the efforts of the California Air Resources Board. That agency is charged with implementing California's landmark global warming law of 2006.

Shames conceded, however, that the late-in-the-session bill was better than a similar initiative by the Public Utilities Commission that would have raised $60 million just from ratepayers of Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

The PUC effort stalled after lawyers for the Legislature concluded that the commission had no authority to set up and single-handedly fund the research center. The PUC has taken no position on the Perata bill. Neither has Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supported the PUC project.

Another agency, the California Energy Commission, supports the thrust of the legislation but opposes the bill because it would transfer $50 million from state programs, including commission funds, to the proposed UC research center. "It's going too fast and too far with a good idea," Commissioner Arthur Rosenfeld said.


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