The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
January 16, 2001, Tuesday, Final Edition

Editorial; Pg. 6A 884 words
Balance Essential on Environment

IN THE PAST DECADE, according to the Census 2000 figures released last month, California added more residents than any other state in the nation 4.1 million. Unfortunately, in that same decade, the state sacrificed intelligent growth on the altar of environmental extremism.

That decision helped produce the energy crisis that is gripping the state now, and is one that Georgia would do well to learn from as it faces an onslaught from some of the same forces. News reports have trumpeted the "failed deregulation" of California's electricity market. But as this page has noted, for a concept to be declared a failure it ought actually to be tried first. Contrary to the popular notion, government in California has not embarked on real deregulation to produce the results that market forces can bring about. Instead, the state has maintained a constricting chokehold on the process, subsidized costly "green" power (solar power is 10 times as costly as coal) and deprived consumers of the true benefits of a competitive market.

At the root of the problem is California's environmental regulation minefield, a primary reason that not one major power plant has come on line since the early '90s. In an over-the-top
crusade for clean air and water, federal and state agencies have been manipulated by unelected but vocal environmental groups determined to banish fossil fuels from California. As a result, the state mandates the toughest environmental regulations in the nation, cramping residents' choices and snowballing the cost of living and doing business in California.

It's difficult to feel sympathy for people who gripe about high utility bills and outages when they meekly swallowed --- indeed encouraged --- the power grab by not-in-my-backyard "consumer" groups and environmental zealots touting wind farms and solar power.

Utilities are businesses, too. They're image-conscious and they want to do the right thing: Customer satisfaction is good for business. And they tried in California, forgoing cheap coal and oil for clean-burning plants. But it's risky to put all your eggs in one basket.

All 14 plant proposals under review before the California Energy Commission are for gas-fired power plants. Yet energy experts say U.S. gas production capability has fallen
nearly 7 percent since 1997. Environmentalists are resisting further exploration, including sensible proposals such as exploration on federal lands in the West.

Add to the mix the extremes of weather, and demand outstrips supply, resulting in shortages and higher costs that California's utilities, under deregulation, weren't allowed to pass on to consumers. At the same time, utilities are mired in layers of overlapping regulations by numerous state and federal agencies, spurred in part by environmentalist-induced hysteria about
the "evil" utilities. Obtaining all the permits lengthens the plant construction process by as much as three years.

The result of all of this, according to the California Public Utilities Commission, is that California added just 2 percent to its generating capacity between 1996 and 1999, while demand grew at 4 percent to 6 percent a year in the state, compared with 2.4 percent nationally.

But that's not all in California:

NIMBYism: Everybody wants cheap and abundant electricity, but nobody wants the gas pipeline, the plant, the transmission lines or the substations.

Calpine Corp.'s proposed 600-megawatt plant in San Jose --- one of the areas most critically short of power and most vulnerable to system failure --- was vital for Silicon Valley, the high-tech capital. The city voted down the plan in November after neighbors and the city's biggest employer, Cisco Systems, which recently won city approval for a 20,000-employee high-tech campus near the plant site, opposed it as visual pollution. The state energy
commission is considering whether to overturn the city's decision. PG&E was thwarted by environmentalists when it sought to ease the summer power crisis with a temporary jet-fuel-powered electricity generator on a barge in San Francisco Bay. Opponents said it would be too noisy.

Unintended consequences: An environmental group's logging lawsuit forced a biomass plant --- which burns trash to generate electricity --- to shut down this month in Susanville, Calif.
The plant had no wood waste to burn for fuel after the feds agreed to a 90-day moratorium on logging on federal land. The state's 30 wood-burning plants not only serve the needs of more than 300,000 households, they also burn about 5 million tons of waste that otherwise would end up in landfills.

The danger of caving in to California-type zealotry cannot be emphasized enough in Georgia, already maligned by the environmental community and Carol Browner's Environmental Protection Agency. Water quality and quantity, air quality and transportation issues are all being influenced by special- interest groups with questionable motives; lawmakers and state officials must maintain a balanced perspective.

California provides an ongoing lesson in the wisdom of examining with a sharp, questioning eye the extremist agenda of some groups, of analyzing all options and of balancing the costs of regulations and their supposed benefits. 

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