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Oil Slick

A state plan backed by a powerful Sacramento couple to wrest control over oil-refinery expansion from local authorities and centralize it in the state capital is moving through the Legislature and California Energy Commission.

The oil industry’s apparent influence over the commission seems to stem from Catherine Reheis-Boyd, executive director of the Western States Petroleum Association and a registered oil lobbyist who identifies herself simply as Reheis in communicating with commission staff. She does that because she’s also the wife of Energy Commissioner James Boyd, making them a couple that might be a little too cozy for comfort where matters of centralizing the oil-permit process and the Energy Commission are concerned.

“I’ve built a firewall between myself and that proposal. I am basically not participating,” Boyd told the L.A. Weekly last spring (see “The Well-Oiled Deal,” April 2–8, 2004). Earlier this summer, however, Boyd showed up at a little-noticed meeting in Sacramento convened to advance the power grab.

Commissioner Boyd’s participation led Communities for a Better Environment to formally protest potential conflict in the Energy Commission’s so-called petroleum-infrastructure permit-streamlining proceeding. “It appears like a serious conflict of interest,” said William Rostov, an attorney for the organization who was the only environmentalist to attend the little-publicized June 28 meeting of the commission’s siting committee. “He should step aside from making these decisions.”

The Boyds, who an Energy Commission spokesperson said were on vacation, could not be reached for comment.

As a member of the commission’s siting committee, Boyd has worked quietly to push the centralization plan through the Legislature with the help of state Senator Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), who inserted language to centralize authority over permits for oil-refinery facilities into SB 429, a bill that originally dealt with the electric-power industry. Key committees have approved the bill, which has 19 bipartisan co-sponsors and is expected to land on the governor’s desk before the Legislature adjourns. Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D–Long Beach) dropped a similar bill last spring in the face of strong community opposition.

“As we’ve all watched the spikes and the rise in gas prices, we know there’s a number of strategies to address that,” said Torlakson. While acknowledging that energy conservation and better land-use and transportation planning are needed to reduce oil use, Torlakson sees increased production of gasoline as the immediate solution to high prices at the pump. “Californians love their cars, and we have a society that uses a lot of gasoline,” he said.

Torlakson’s bill would require the governor to appoint a state-funded petroleum-industry advocate to push cities, local air-quality-management districts and water-quality boards, and other agencies to speedily approve expansions of oil facilities. It also would require the Energy Commission to draft recommendations on how to streamline permits for the state’s oil industry and forward them to the Legislature for enactment in 2005.

While the proposal is watered down from the commission’s original plan to centralize authority immediately over refinery projects, Reheis-Boyd’s boss Joe Sparano, president of the petroleum association, applauded the effort at the meeting and called for the Energy Commission to join the oil industry in asserting “influence” over the permit process.

A series of e-mails between Reheis-Boyd and commission staff members shows that she was instrumental in getting the commission to pursue permit streamlining for oil. For instance, on February 22, she wrote to a commission staff member working on the streamlining effort, saying, “I’ll call you to arrange a time to discuss the ‘go forward’ plan with your team and the ICF contractor [the commission’s consulting firm on the project] on Monday. Thanks for the continued dialogue. I’m confident that it will result in useful information to streamline the process.”

In a March 2 e-mail on the strategy for introducing the plan to eliminate local control over refinery expansions, commission staff adviser Chris Tooker wrote to Reheis-Boyd, “We believe that it is critical that our initial meetings with local governments occur without industry participation to underscore our independence.”

Environmental-justice advocates, such as Communities for a Better Environment, are dismayed that the commission has not sought further involvement of the many people who live around the state’s refineries. Commission Public Adviser Margaret Kim believes that the commission must do more to involve local communities on the issue. “This is a hot topic,” she said.

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