Wednesday, May 20, 2015

STADIUM PROJECTS A TEST FOR CEQA CHANGES

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, JUNE 5, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “STADIUM PROJECTS A TEST FOR CEQA CHANGES”


          Reform of the California Environmental QualityAct has become a mantra for many California politicians over the last several years, all the way up to Gov. Jerry Brown, who found himself frustrated by CEQA at times during his years as mayor of Oakland.


          But one person’s “reform” can sometimes be another’s disaster, and California may be about to find out what CEQA reform could really mean.


          The arenas for this are two medium-sized Los Angeles area cities, Inglewood and Carson, both with ambitions to become somewhat like Arlington, Texas, the not-quite-Dallas home of the Dallas Cowboys football team.


          Local officials in both cities, drooling over the potential of revenue that might come from hosting National Football League teams like the current St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, are going full steam ahead on two stadium proposals. Inglewood’s would be built by a development team headed by Rams owner Stan Kroenke, the other by a joint venture of the sometime rival Raiders and  Chargers.


    Even if both billion-dollar-plus stadia win eventual civic approvals (both are well on their way), it’s almost inconceivable both could be built. Their sites are only about 10 miles apart, both only a short hop from the already super-congested I-405 San Diego Freeway that runs past the Los Angeles International Airport. Who would make that choice, if it comes, and how that choice might be made are still unknowns.


          These are the classic projects for which CEQA was designed. The 1970s-era act, signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, requires a detailed environmental impact report (EIR) for almost all major projects. But none will be needed for either of these two gigantic projects because of a “reform” quietly introduced by the state Supreme Court last August, before Brown’s latest two appointees were seated.


          As originally written, CEQA allowed exceptions to the EIR requirement if local voters approve ballot measures okaying projects. A 1996 vote, for example, allowed the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park to move forward without an EIR.


          But the new court ruling allows city councils to outright adopt, with no popular vote, local initiatives that have already qualified for the ballot. Projects involved don't need EIRs. Both big stadia now on the drawing boards employed this loophole (er, reform) and construction on one, or both, could begin as early as next winter with no input at all from local voters, other than those who signed petitions.


          Both development groups spent a total of no more than $2.5 million to qualify the local initiatives in their relatively small cities, compared with potential costs of $100 million or more if they’d been forced to do EIRs.


          Meanwhile, whatever air pollution, traffic, economic or other difficulties and benefits the presence of one or both stadia might mean for surrounding cities like Los Angeles, Torrance, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, El Segundo, Hawthorne and other points only slightly farther away will simply happen. No one will quantify the effects of the projects, either during the construction phase or as they draw huge crowds for football games, concerts and other events. Nor will the effects of other commercial and residential development tied to them be known ahead of time.


          Yes, CEQA has been used many times by folks with not-in-my-backyard mentalities to stymie developments that might have been constructive. But CEQA has also prevented many potentially destructive projects, and mitigated potential damage from thousands of other projects that did get built, but somewhat differently than initially proposed.


          Few would argue that AT&T Park has had a mostly positive influence on its Mission Bay area of San Francisco, but that project was fully debated before the voters before it was built.


          Not so for these new stadia, thanks to the state’s highest court.


          Over more than 40 years, CEQA has become a tradition, like it or not. What’s going on now may turn into a classic example of what can happen when people throw out a tradition. Often they discover why that tradition became established in the first place.

          One thing for sure: Californians will soon know the full effects, good or bad, of the change the state Supreme Court made to the CEQA tradition. The hope here is that it’s all positive, but no one really knows, and that may lead to many unforeseen problems.



      -30-
     Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net

BEAM US UP, SCOTTY; DROUGHT SPURRING IDEAS

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, JUNE 2, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “BEAM US UP, SCOTTY; DROUGHT SPURRING IDEAS”


          Ideas come fast every time California endures a drought of several years. Each time, some of them are accepted and put into use, thus making the next drought a bit easier to handle.


          Back in the 1970s, the last time this state saw as protracted a dry spell as today’s, snickering and cries of “yuck” ensued when some environmentalists proposed reusing water from dishes, baths, showers and more to irrigate grass and shrubbery rather than merely disposing of it as sewage.


          This idea is now called “grey water,” and it is required of much new industrial and multi-family construction like apartments and condominiums, along with low-flow faucets, shower heads and toilets.


          During that same drought, which ended abruptly with a huge storm season starting in December 1977, the late Kenneth Hahn, a longtime Los Angeles County supervisor who fathered both a Los Angeles mayor and a current congresswoman, suggested snagging icebergs as they calved from Antarctica and dragging them north to become drinking water.


          That idea has not yet taken, even as the same global warming trend that some believe responsible for the severity of California’s latest dry period now sees more icebergs than ever dropping from Antarctic cliffs.


          The modern drought is also producing new ideas, including several proposed methods for desalinating sea water far more cheaply than via the current reverse osmosis filtering technique.


          It’s also seeing rehashes of old ideas. One of the most prominent is the notion of building pipelines to bring California water from faraway sources plagued by more precipitation than they need.


          This one gets its most recent push from actor William Shatner, the Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame. Shatner, 84, proposes building a pipeline on the scale of the Alaskan oil pipeline to bring water south from Washington state, where he says there’s an excess. Shatner proposes a Kickstarter campaign to raise the approximate $30 billion this one would cost to build.


    Trouble is, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee this spring declared a drought in 13 of his state’s river basins. Any visitor to the Evergreen State will see swaths of once-green conifers turning brown. So it doesn’t look like Shatner will be able to beam this one up anytime soon.


    Like the Antarctic icebergs, a Pacific Northwest water pipeline was also a Kenny Hahn pipe dream, this one during a somewhat shorter but still severe drought in the early 1990s, a time when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, an ex-Marine, asked all Californians to save water via “Navy showers,” turning the water off while they soaped down.


          Hahn found a political partner for the pipeline idea in then-Gov. Walter Hickel of Alaska, who traveled to Los Angeles to pursue the notion of selling ice water to California in huge quantities. As in Antarctica, some Alaskan glaciers were then calving icebergs steadily, and still are.


          Hickel proposed fabricating this pipeline of plastic on a giant barge as it was being laid on the ocean floor from southern Alaska to Southern California. Plastic, he and Hahn believed, would be far cheaper and more flexible than the usual steel and concrete used for oil pipelines. Plus, any leakage of pipeline water – unlike oil – would be harmless.


          Some thinkers today hear of flooding and record blizzards in the East and Midwest and propose building a water pipeline from there. “You wouldn’t have to worry about leakage, like with oil,” one Google engineering manager said recently, echoing Hickel. “If water leaked, it would do no harm.”


          Drought in the Northwest (several Oregon counties also are in official states of drought now, too) makes it unlikely California will soon get water from there. But a water pipe from the Midwest is conceivable under two circumstances: 1) the price of water rises enough to pay for construction, the same pre-condition needed for new desalination plants, or 2) California is able to extract enough natural gas from the Monterey Shale formation to free up one of the three major gas pipelines bringing that fuel here from Canada, Texas, Oklahoma and the Rocky Mountain region.


          These ideas may sound far-fetched today, or even silly to some, but if gray water could become a reality, why not a water pipeline from someplace very wet?
         
    -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

WILL CALIFORNIA EVADE NEW BASE CLOSURE ROUND?

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MAY 29, 2015, 2014, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “WILL CALIFORNIA EVADE NEW BASE CLOSURE ROUND?”


          When former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asked Congress last year to authorize a new round of military base closings, alarm bells went off in many parts of California.


          For this state has been victimized more than any other in the two already-completed rounds, which saw the military fail to realize most of the savings it hoped for, while people and communities involved took greater hits than predicted.


          Sure, there have been positive new uses of some old bases, from parkland in the Presidio of San Francisco to the Cal State Monterey Bay campus on the former site of Ft. Ord. But the jobs lost when those bases closed, plus the ones lost from the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, the El Toro Marine Air Station, March Air Force Base and many others still have not been replaced.


          Nor have the ripple effects stopped, as many businesses near those bases disappeared or became far less profitable than before, employing many thousands fewer than they once did.


          That’s why there should have been a sign of relief around California early this spring, when a U.S. Senate panel announced it will not back the Defense Department on another base closure round, despite the usual Pentagon warnings that excess facilities will bloat budgets and ultimately hurt readiness.


          Although California took the brunt of the two previous rounds of base closings, neither of its senators was part of this proceeding, mostly because of their committee assignments.


          Both previous series of base closures saw Congress give up much of its control, agreeing to set up Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commissions, then vote yes or no on the entirety of those groups’ proposals without the possibility of making any changes.


          But senators don’t appear to be as willing to part with their power this time. “Let me just make clear up front that I continue to be opposed to (a new) BRAC,” New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee.


          “You make everyone nervous when you do a BRAC because every community across the United States has to hire lobbyists and lawyers,” added Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine.


          The lobbyists are needed to prevent local economic disasters like those still felt in many parts of California, which lost far more bases than any other state in the previous BRAC rounds. The closures are a major reason California ranks just 43rd among all states in federal per capita spending, getting back only 78 cents for every dollar its taxpayers put into the U.S. Treasury.


          But military officials at the subcommittee hearing testified that about 20 percent of Defense Department property is unneeded and the department could save about $2 billion a year if it closed even more bases.


          Yet, those same officials admitted under questioning that the previous rounds have not saved as much as expected, while harming military communities across America. While closing 56 major bases and hundreds of smaller installations cost the military $29 billion, it turns out the closures have saved a net total of only about $1 billion a year since. Hardly worth the bother.


          The upshot is that California this time may evade the economic consequences that have followed each spate of base closings in the early 2000s and the mid-1990s.


          Which means that cities around the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in northern San Diego County can breathe easier today. The same for areas around the Army’s Ft. Irwin desert warfare training center in San Bernardino County and the Navy’s air station near Lemoore in the Central Valley. And more.


          For while Congress – and almost all Californians serving there – enthusiastically backed the previous BRAC plans, things didn’t look so good afterwards. For one thing, California dropped 20 places in its rank among the states in federal spending. Federal salaries paid to Californians alone fell by $9 billion per year because of the two BRACs, a huge economic hit.


          So even though Californians have so far had nothing to do with it, all signs point to a long wait before another BRAC round occurs, with this state among the chief beneficiaries of keeping the status quo.


    -30-
    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net


STYMIED HOUSE DEMOS MAY GIVE STATE A REAL SENATE RACE

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MAY 26, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “STYMIED HOUSE DEMOS MAY GIVE STATE A REAL SENATE RACE"


          Democrats in Congress will never say so publicly, but they know they have little or no hope of taking back control of the House of Representatives until 2022 at the earliest.


          That’s because gerrymandering in states like Texas and Georgia and North Carolina has concentrated the many Democratic voters in those places into just a few congressional districts, leaving all the rest safe for the GOP.


          It’s the same thing Democrats did in California before the advent of the Citizens Redistricting Commission which drew today’s lines and led to a slew of highly competitive races last year, with more to come in 2016.


          This reality has heavy implications for the U.S. Senate candidacy of Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general and a former San Francisco district attorney.


          For the less chance veteran Democratic members of Congress believe their party has to regain control of the House, the lower they rate their own chances for ever becoming powerful committee chairs effective at pushing their agendas. So long as their party is doomed to minority status, they can do little more than try to fend off Republican proposals they see as outrageous.


          Like many in hopeless situations, they begin to look elsewhere. This is one reason former Democratic committee chairs from California like Henry Waxman and George Miller retired from Congress. It’s a large, unstated reason for the departure of the latest announced retiree, Lois Capps of Santa Barbara.


          As they cast about for ways to be effective, Democrats had nowhere to go except retirement through the first several years of the current GOP domination in the House. But then Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced she’ll retire after next year. Chances for Democrats to take over the Senate are much stronger than in the House, because no party manipulation of district lines is involved there.


          That’s why, as other prospective Democratic rivals of Harris’ Senate candidacy began to drop out – people like Lt. Gov. and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa – members of Congress kept seriously examining the Senate race.


    Among them are Orange County’s Loretta Sanchez, Xavier Becerra of East Los Angeles and Adam Schiff of Burbank.


    Each would bring unique strengths to a race with Harris, who so far has only two declared opponents, Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside and Tom Del Beccaro, a former state GOP party chairman.


    Sanchez, an 18-year House veteran who upset longtime Republican incumbent Robert (B-1 Bob) Dornan in 1996, and Becerra, a member of the Democratic House leadership, are not likely to oppose one another. But neither would likely be scared off by Schiff.


    All are liberals and would bring a Southern California presence to a statewide Democratic scene long dominated by San Francisco Bay area politicians like Boxer, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Newsom, Gov. Jerry Brown and state party Chairman John Burton.


    If Sanchez, Becerra or Schiff can arouse resentment in Southern California of that northern domination, any of them could be a formidable candidate against Harris, a protégé of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.


    Sanchez or Becerra would also bring a Latino element into the race, the same factor that drove Villaraigosa’s brief flirtation with a run. Neither they nor Schiff have had brushes with scandal, unlike Villaraigosa and Newsom, both with histories of womanizing.


    For sure, Democrats have depended on Latinos for their dominance of California politics, but have never propelled a Hispanic into a top-of-the-ticket slot like governor or the Senate. That could change next year.


          Any of the three Congress members thinking seriously of a Senate run would run one risk Harris does not have: She does not have to give up her current office to run, while they would need to.


          But the new Democratic reality of long-term minority status in the House changes their equations a bit. All are frustrated at their inability to regain power anytime soon, which greatly reduces the risks of making a run.


          So it’s a safe bet at least one of the three will jump in, and pretty soon, giving voters a much more interesting race than they’d have if Harris were in effect awarded the office by default.


    -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

THIS ‘TAX’ MAY BE ABOUT TO RISE

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MAY 22, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “THIS ‘TAX’ MAY BE ABOUT TO RISE”


          If a committee of legislators or U.S. Senators whose most influential members were under criminal investigation ever considered raising taxes on Californians by significant amounts, protests would be non-stop and cacophonous.


          But with the seriously sullied state Public Utilities Commission about to raise electric rates for the bulk of this state’s residents, the silence from the public and from consumer advocates is deafening.


          Make no mistake, electric and natural gas rates are a lot like taxes, even if they’re not called that. As with taxes, don’t pay and dire consequences will follow.


          Maybe the fact that power prices seem more complex than taxes makes electricity customers – all of us – yawn when rate hikes are considered. Maybe it’s because the commissioners regulating large utilities like Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric never have to go before the voters.


          But the reality is that even as at least one current PUC member and the ex-president of the commission are under state and federal investigation, as early as this month the PUC may change the entire way electricity rates are levied.


          The seemingly arcane question about to be decided soon is how many rate tiers should appear on the typical California electricity bill. Tiers have a lot to do with how much customers pay for power, as for decades the rule has been that the more you use, the more you pay for each kilowatt hour.


          The idea has been to encourage energy conservation, just as tiered water prices – now under legal challenge – are one tactic to discourage excessive water use in a drought.


          A typical Edison bill this spring showed up to 618 kilowatt hours costing 14 cents each, for a total of $86.52, while the top tier of the same bill was priced at 31 cents per kilowatt hour, more than twice as much.


          Now the commission is about to consider a plan by PG&E – yes, the same company indicted for the 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons and destroyed dozens of homes in San Bruno – to cut the number of rate tiers from four to two, a move sure to raise the rates of low-usage customers and lower what’s paid by factories, office buildings and other large power users.


          This would essentially see persons and companies that have cut power use to conserve energy and fight climate change pay more for using less. Meanwhile, energy hogs will pay less for using more, and climate change be damned. If PG&E wins the new formula it seeks, the same kind of plan will soon come to Edison and SDG&E electric customers. Edison already proposes a similar pricing change.


          This is part of an effort started by Democratic Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno to help the big utilities “simplify” their billing. It’s as if Perea and friends believe most Californians are not mentally competent to read an electricity bill.


          Another Perea measure, passed last year and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, will soon impose a flat fee (note it is not called a tax, although it acts just like one) of $5 per month or $60 per year on every electric customer. This new charge will supposedly compensate big power companies for continuing to maintain the state’s electric grid while more and more consumers install rooftop solar panels and at least partially go off the grid.


          This isn’t big money for most folks, but it is a slight disincentive to install solar, since the savings from it won’t be quite as good as before for big users. Is this really what Brown and other advocates of renewable energy want?


          It all may be the result of direct lobbying during a 2012 legislative conference on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where some lawmakers saw expenses paid by corporations and/or labor unions. Rate restructure was discussed there.


          If that conference had even the slightest influence on the coming changes, the plane tickets and hotel rooms paid for by businesses and their union workers will turn into choice investments.


          For these changes would mean billions of new dollars for the big utilities, lower bills for big energy hogs and higher prices for most consumers.


          Sadly, all that stands between consumers and that more expensive new reality is the thoroughly compromised PUC.

         
    -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

ARE ANTI-SEMITISM, OUT-OF-STATE TUITION LINKED?

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
 FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MAY 19, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “ARE ANTI-SEMITISM, OUT-OF-STATE TUITION LINKED?”


          There is no doubt dependence on the higher tuition paid by out-of-state and foreign students has become established policy at the University of California. Now some believe this may be leading to the unintended consequence of an upsurge of anti-Semitism on campuses like Berkeley, Davis, UCLA and Riverside.


    The university says no. “I don’t think there’s any link,” maintains Dianne Klein, media relations director for UC’s central office. “There’s been no huge influx of students from countries where anti-Semitism is official policy.”


    No? Between 2001 and 2013, the number of UC graduate students from Iran – where a mantra in public schools reportedly has students daily reciting “Death to America, Death to Israel!” – rose from six to 113. Plus, last fall’s enrollees included 74 undergraduates from Saudi Arabia, 53 from Turkey and 51 from Pakistan, to name a few countries where anti-Semitism is common.


          There is no doubt that as the number of foreign students at UC has risen, with administrators exploiting the $23,000 annual difference between out-of-state tuition and what California residents pay, the so-called BDS movement (boycott, divest and sanction) against Israel has become more active on many campuses. Student governments at Berkeley, UCLA and Davis all have voted to demand that university regents and faculty boycott Israel, divest from companies doing business there and set up economic sanctions against it. There was a similar vote at Stanford University this spring.


          No one asks their nationality at demonstrations, but almost invariably, campus BDS leaders have Muslim-oriented names.


          So far, no university governing board has bought into their demands.


          Students conducting anti-Israel rallies and demonstrations deny anti-Semitism, although their efforts have included checkpoints on some campuses where camouflage-clad students toting mockup machine guns stopped and frisked anyone they thought looked Jewish.


          And outright anti-Semitism has followed quickly after heated debates over the anti-Israel student senate votes. At UCLA, student government members questioned the ability of a Jewish student to serve impartially on a judicial board and voted her down. Later, they were shamed into reversing that vote.


          At Davis, vandals defaced a Jewish fraternity house with swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti shortly after the BDS debate. A few weeks after the debate at Stanford, swastikas were swabbed onto the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house, not a Jewish one, and two other residences.


          Stanford also saw a minority student coalition question a student government candidate about being Jewish, then choose not to endorse her, all the while denying anti-Semitism.


          Imagine the reaction if anyone set up checkpoints blocking and frisking black, Latino or Asian students or if elected student officials questioned Baptists or Muslims about their ability to be objective and fair. The outcry would be enormous, but it was muted after these outright examples of anti-Semitism.


          Ironically, this all comes after a Pew Research Center study found 63 percent of Americans view the Jewish religion favorably, the highest rating for any religion. Protestant Christianity in that survey got a 61 percent favorable rating and the Mormon faith 46 percent positive.


          But the on-campus scene has grown serious enough that UC President Janet Napolitano felt impelled to issue the first formal statement ever by a UC president condemning anti-Semitism. “Anti-Semitic incidents…will not be tolerated,” she said. “They deserve our condemnation.”


          It all makes some wonder whether the upsurge of campus anti-Semitism is linked to greater numbers of students from strongly anti-Israel countries, including Malaysia, which sent 164 undergraduates to UC last fall.


          “We’ve had a real concern that the influx of students from countries where anti-Semitism is rampant will spill over into action toward Jewish students,” said Tammy Rossman-Benjamin a UC Santa Cruz lecturer and founder of the Amcha Initiative, a non-profit organization that documents and combats campus anti-Semitism.


          The pro-Israel organization Stand With Us reports most on-campus anti-Israel activity is organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, a national group with local chapters. “It is coordinated nationally and we think the funding comes from abroad,” said Roz Rothstein, CEO of Stand With Us.


          Christians United for Israel, composed mostly of evangelicals, calls what’s happening “a dark movement,” that “bullies and intimidates Jewish students.”


          No doubt some of this activity would have hit California campuses even without their need for foreign tuition money. From all appearances, though, one unintended consequence is that the phenomenon is more intense than it otherwise would be.


    -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

MOST OF GAS PRICE SURGE LIKELY DUE TO GOUGING

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
    1720 OAK STREET, SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA 90405
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MAY 15, 2015, 2014 OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “MOST OF GAS PRICE SURGE LIKELY DUE TO GOUGING”


          There is absolutely no doubt about a few facts surrounding the gasoline price surge Californians experienced in late winter and early spring.


          In March, California prices averaged 84 cents per gallon higher than the national average of $2.54 per gallon, rising to $3.38 after a wintertime dip.


          That meant Californians spent $34 million per day more for their gas that month than they would have in most other places. For the month of March, the extra tab came to more than $1 billion from California pocketbooks, or an average of $43 per driver. No one yet knows how much extra the similar price spike of late April has cost.


          There is some disagreement over why things occurred as they did late last winter. Oil companies maintain their usual springtime refinery maintenance and the shift from winter to summer fuel formulas was a prime part of the cost. They also argue that California gasoline taxes are higher than those elsewhere.


          These are certainly factors, but they don’t come near to accounting for the difference between California prices and those in the rest of the Lower 48 states (prices on the U.S. mainland should never be compared with costs in Hawaii and Alaska, where distance from refineries raises prices greatly).


          Gas taxes account for less than one-fourth of the price differential, or about 15 cents per gallon higher than elsewhere, according to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The changeover in fuel composition can also account for a little, perhaps as much as another 10 percent of the differential. That leaves oil companies to answer for about 70 percent of the price difference, about $1.4 billion out of the $2 billion additional that Californians paid for gasoline between Jan. 15 and April 1.


          The Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, most often associated with its longtime effort to keep insurance prices down, says the price differential has a lot to do with supply and demand. The group singles out steadily low gasoline inventories kept on hand by oil companies as a major factor.


          “These companies keep California running on empty so that when a refinery goes down, gasoline prices go way up,” says Jamie Court, Consumer Watchdog president. “With crude oil prices at historic lows and national gasoline prices stable, California oil refiners need to answer for the $1 billion extra they charged in March. The Legislature should demand the companies explain their billion-dollar bonanza.”


          For sure, refiners keep California inventories low, with only about a 10.7-day supply on hand at most times, according to a seven-page report produced by Consumer Watchdog. The average inventory in the rest of the nation would last about 18 days.


          Which means that when refineries shut down, as Tesoro’s Martinez facility did in February and Exxon’s Torrance plant did soon after, panic can set in, with gouging one result.


          Domination of the California market by just two companies – between them, Chevron and Tesoro (often marketed under the Shell emblem) control 55 percent of the state’s gasoline market – also contributes. Altogether, four companies provide 76 percent of California gasoline. That consolidation is the main reason the number of refineries in this state dropped from 30 to 11 over the last 33 years. It is probably no coincidence that prices at stations like Flying J and Pilot, run by an “outsider” company – often run well below those at the major brands.


          These facts this spring led Tom Steyer, a financier, venture capitalist and environmental activist considering a 2018 run for governor, to suggest state lawmakers demand answers to questions like these two: 1) Why do refiners keep so much less gasoline on hand here than in the rest of America? And 2) Why don’t refineries that do not close step up production when it becomes clear supplies are dropping?


          Another question he might have added: Why should oil companies not be prosecuted for gouging when fully 34 percent of what they charged in March (according to the California Energy Commission) went for refinery costs and profits?


          If state lawmakers don’t demand answers to these questions and more, they will be derelict in their duty and provide oil companies an open invitation to gouge Californians even more the next time there’s any problem at one of the few remaining refineries.



    -30-
    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net