By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Why is Mr. Wright so wrong? It‘s a question often asked by consumer and environmental advocates of Assemblyman Rod Wright. The Los Angeles Democrat chairs the Utilities and Commerce Committee, and activists have long considered Wright a roadblock and an industry shill, who shamelessly raises campaign money from the very utilities he regulates. They especially fault him for torpedoing last year’s attempt to double the state‘s use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass.
Wright was certainly doing industry bidding when he killed this legislation and offered only a weak defense of his actions, calling the energy bill ”stupid.“
But this year Wright is sending different signals. ”Let me say at the outset,“ Wright wrote in a memo this month to proponents of renewable energy, ”I have personally invested many hours in this effort, which I would not have done if it were my intent to kill the idea.“
Legislation to promote renewable energy, sponsored once again by Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), is about to enter Wright’s committee. It would require a utilities to purchase 20 percent of their electric energy from renewable sources by 2015. Which Wright apparently no longer thinks is ”stupid.“
If the bill gets through the Legislature, Governor Gray Davis has said flat out that he will sign it. For his part, Davis has had to perform damage control for approving $44 billion of long-term power contracts that rely almost exclusively on non-renewable natural gas--fired power plants. Critics dubbed the deals a ”Green Blackout.“ Obviously eager to resuscitate his environmental credentials, Davis told the Weekly earlier this year that the renewable-energy standard would be one of his priorities. Said Matt Freedman of the consumer group TURN (Toward Utility Reform Now), one of the principal advocates of the renewable bill: ”Governor Davis really wants this bill. His people have been pretty good. They have not tried to weaken it at all.“
But first the bill has to get past Wright.
”I‘m called ’the Legislator From Hell,‘“ noted Wright, who said he seldom bothers to talk to the press because ”you always bring up the money I raise from the utilities. I don’t even send out press releases. They just bring me shit.“ Wright, a voluble legislator and veteran political operative, spent 90 minutes last Friday talking with the Weekly about energy policy, state politics, and himself. ”I know people think I‘m a right-wing person,“ said Wright, a onetime aide to left-liberal L.A. Congresswoman Maxine Waters and, during another period, to Reverend Jesse Jackson. ”I’m not,“ he insisted. Wright got his committee chairmanship from former Assembly speaker and liberal stalwart Antonio Villaraigosa.
Wright pointed out that he isn‘t always the bogeyman of progressives on energy issues. He authored the crucial ”public goods“ bill that has pumped big bucks into renewable power, an achievement acknowledged by V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.
But Wright has been a crucial opponent of the push to require that 20 percent of California’s electric power comes from renewable energy. Last year, Wright killed the legislation by simply burying it in his committee. It never reached the Legislature for a decisive vote. Why?
”It‘s just a stupid idea,“ said Wright at the time. Because? ”The buyers [i.e., the utilities] should decide what kind of power they want to buy.“
Wright has raised megabucks from the utilities and other conventional-energy companies, including one fund-raiser at a prime capital watering hole, Morton’s steak house, just as his committee considered legislation to bail out the utilities that nearly went belly up during last summer‘s energy crisis. The event prompted a scathing editorial in the Sacramento Bee. Wright put forth a ”straight bailout“ bill for Southern California Edison, eschewing tradeoffs for the state that Governor Davis and other bailout proponents wanted in return.
In the end, the utilities got even more money than what had been proposed in Wright’s bailout. But it‘s easy to see why Wright has the reputation he does, having raised about $100,000 from the big three California utilities in the last cycle alone.
Of course, even if Wright were intent on doing the industry’s bidding, the utilities themselves have different perspectives. Sempra, which serves the San Diego area and uses virtually no renewable energy, is a staunch opponent of stiff renewable requirements. Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves Northern and Central California, seems closer to neutral. And Southern California Edison may turn out to favor the renewable standard, in part because it already has developed a renewable-energy portfolio. About 12 percent of Edison‘s and 10 percent of PG&E’s power is renewable.
On the other hand, the touted renewable-energy programs of the L.A. Department of Water & Power account for only 2 percent of its power. Where does DWP stand? ”No comment,“ said DWP assistant general manager for strategic planning Angelina Galiteva.
With support from Senate President John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Governor Davis, the Sher bill this year swept through the state Senate, setting up its date with fate in Wright‘s committee. Unlike last year, when then--Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles) was noncommittal, new Speaker Herb Wesson, also of L.A., favors the renewable standard. Wesson also helped get through Assemblywoman Fran Pavley’s bill to combat global warming.
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