Monday, February 1, 2016




          To understand the brazen quality of the latest rate increase application from California’s third-largest electric utility, it’s necessary to step back in time, to the scene when wildfires raged across some of the prettiest parts of San Diego County in 2007.

          Those fires would eventually kill 13 persons, even more than the notorious natural gas pipeline explosion that came about three years later in San Bruno, which ever since has plagued the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric. Physical damage from the fire was far more widespread.

          Just after noon on Oct. 21, 2007, arcing power lines owned by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. were whipped by dry winds of up to 100 mph, eventually starting a small fire near Ramona, in eastern San Diego County. Known as the Witch Creek fire, by 4 a.m. the next day, this blaze had grown exponentially and reached the San Diego city limits. It combined with two other fires, eventually burning down whole neighborhoods – a total of more than 1,125 residences. More than 197,000 acres burned, but not in rural country like some of last fall’s big fires. This was high-priced residential real estate.

          Evacuations were ordered over the almost three weeks the blaze burned, in cities from Oceanside and Encinitas, Del Mar Heights and Carmel Valley, Rancho Santa Fe and the heavily afflicted Rancho Bernardo. And there were more. These eventually involved about half a million people, the largest evacuation in California history.

          Now fast forward to SDG&E’s newest rate increase application. Following the examples of PG&E and Southern California Edison, SDG&E asks the state Public Utilities Commission to have its customers pay 90 percent of its approximately $380 million in fire-related expenses. This would amount to about $1.67 per month per customer.

          No talk here about the company compensating affected customers for their own fire-related costs, as one might think fair.

          The case creates a major test for the PUC, whose new president, Michael Picker, has promised more transparency and adherence to rules preventing private contacts between commissioners, their staff and utility executives during rate cases. Such contacts have long been common, despite violating many rules and regulations.

          The 2007 fire, caused primarily by the combination of SDG&E equipment and severe weather conditions, spurred about $4 billion in claims, many not covered by insurance.

          But SDG&E, obligated to serve fire-prone areas and pay damages linked to power line problems whether or not negligence was involved, says having customers pay 90 percent of its costs is consistent with another state decision on a hazardous waste cleanup.

          This does not change the fact that asking customers – many of them victims of the fire – to pay the vast bulk of the bills is like someone helping cause a car accident that injures another party and then expecting that person to pay most of the damage expense.

          This would never fly in a private negotiation, but we are talking about a state commission with decades of experience favoring utility companies over their customers.

          SDG&E doesn’t say this, but it has plainly seen that Southern California Edison won a deal having customers foot about 70 percent of expenses linked to the shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, caused mostly by an Edison blunder. It has seen PG&E get sweetheart terms on the penalties assessed against it for San Bruno. And SDG&E has seen the thus-far lenient treatment the PUC has given the Southern California Gas Co. (with which it shares a parent company – Sempra Energy) in the massive ongoing methane gas leak near Porter Ranch in Los Angeles.

          If Picker is serious about changing the culture of the commission, as he claimed in his state Senate confirmation hearings, the SDG&E rate case is a big chance to make a statement.

          The bottom line: If SDG&E ends up paying only about 10 percent of its expenses from a hugely traumatic fire caused in large part by its equipment, the PUC will be saying it’s business as usual. The companies ask for money and the commission reaches for the wallets of customers. Only if the proposal is cut by much more than half will there be any reason to think there’s been any change at this steadfastly corrupt commission.

    Email Thomas Elias at 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




          There’s probably no hope of stopping the revolving door in Washington, D.C. anytime soon. The constant cycle of longtime Congress members and senators moving downtown from the Capitol to take high-paying jobs as lobbyists can only be ended by Congress itself – and the prospect of big paychecks to come makes it very unlikely many so-called “citizen politicians” will ever vote to end that.

          But Sacramento is different. On the surface, it’s much the same, of course. Legislators move easily and often from the Assembly or state Senate to lobbying jobs just as lucrative as any to be had in the nation’s capital. The difference is that the people of California can effectively end this practice anytime they like, via the initiative process.

          The latest example of a state lawmaker taking a far more lucrative job on the side of big business came just this winter, when five-year Democratic Assemblyman Henry T. Perea departed office with a year to go in his third term, taking a job advocating for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, usually referred to as PhRMA. It is the main lobbying group for the drug companies often called Big Pharma.

          Perea, the son of former longtime legislator and current Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea, will be advocating for Big Pharma in both California and Nevada, with the Nevada capital of Carson City not very far from his new Sacramento office.

          He’s the third California legislator in the last 30 months to leave for a higher paycheck as a lobbyist – even though state law says he can’t actually schmooze or gift his former colleagues until the end of this year. That’s right: Legislators only have to wait 12 months before coming back to advocate directly among their old colleagues.

          Before Perea waltzed down the path toward a much bigger paycheck, former Democratic state Sen. Michael Rubio of Shafter moved to a job with Chevron and former Republican state Sen. Bill Emmerson of Riverside County moved to the California Hospital Assn. And that's just within the last 26 months.

          Perea made just over $97,000 a year in the Legislature; his new employer isn’t announcing his salary, but bet on it being at least double what he drew in office. Perea, father of two young children with a third on the way, probably can use the extra cash. Big Pharma had invested in him earlier, too, donating nearly $50,000 to his campaigns in the 2013-14 election cycle.

          This is enough to make some wonder whether the new job might be a reward for past favors, perhaps even a reward that was promised even before those favors were done.

          The very short one-year lobbying prohibition makes it attractive for big industries to hire lawmakers who once voted on bills vital to their interests. Twelve months often isn’t long in the life of a bill, and after that time is up, former lawmakers like Perea can be right back in the Capitol advocating among their buddies. Not that he won’t be seeing them elsewhere before then.

          Perea, whose unofficial bio says he was “known for his skill at working the floor in the Legislature,” will be doing that again very soon. He also won’t have to worry any more about which fellow legislators he pleases or angers with his votes. Everyone will know where he stands – right where his employer tells him to.

          Even before he can officially lobby anyone in the Capitol, Perea this fall will probably be instrumental in the campaign against a prospective ballot measure that aims to limit drug prices paid by Medi-Cal and other state programs to levels negotiated by the federal Veterans Administration.

          It’s a joke for legislators to be able to come back and lobby their pals so soon after leaving office. There ought to be at least a five-year waiting period for them, which might cause second thoughts for some who enter politics just to get on the gravy train.

          This will not happen in Washington, D.C. in the foreseeable future. But it could happen in Sacramento if citizens get sufficiently fed up with legislators like Perea parlaying elected jobs into high-paying posts as influence peddlers.

    Email Thomas Elias at 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

Monday, January 25, 2016




          The polls don’t look super-strong for Dianne Feinstein today. True, she has a very good approval rating in the latest surveys, the Field Poll showing 44 percent of California voters think she’s doing a good job and only 29 percent disapproving of her work.

          But the same surveys indicate that even though a generation or two has come of age since she won her U.S. Senate seat in 1992, fully 43 percent of likely voters think it would not be a good thing for her to seek reelection to a fifth full term in 2018, when the former San Francisco mayor would be 84 years old. So just as many people want her to retire as think she’s doing well right now.

          Simply put, that’s age discrimination. But Democrat Feinstein also faces the same problem that perennially afflicts all senators from California, one that’s caused plenty to lose their seats when seeking reelection: This state is so big that even with six years of congressional recesses to use, no one can possibly become familiar to the great majority of voters without running a large advertising campaign.

          Yet, no senator can afford that until it’s time for a reelection campaign to start. As Feinstein’s longtime Democratic colleague, the soon-to-retire Barbara Boxer, said in an interview as her 2010 campaign began, “You have to reintroduce yourself to the voters every six years. A lot of them just don’t know you.”

          That’s political reality in this huge state, where the average person moves once every seven years and senators spend most of their time about 3,000 miles away.

          So it’s easy for people who see Feinstein’s age and not her energy to opine that she shouldn’t run. Certainly, there’s a large cadre of her fellow Democrats who feel that way: Many of them would dearly love to take her job.

          But Feinstein has hung onto that job by doing it well, acting as a moderate with friends and allies in both parties even while the Senate sees more partisan bitterness and bickering than it has in the last century.

          Emblematic was how she handled a raucous public hearing about land use in the California desert held last fall in a large tent set up about five miles off the Interstate 10 freeway near Palm Springs. Feinstein has pushed for about seven years to create three national monuments in large portions of the Mojave Desert lying between Barstow, Needles and Twentynine Palms. The crowd of 800 under the tent in 100-degree-plus temperatures wildly favored her plan, which has been stymied by Republicans in Congress, while President Obama dithers about it.

          When those present loudly booed an aide to Yucca Valley’s Republican Rep. Paul Cook, who wants the land to remain open to development, mining and other activities, Feinstein stood with an arm around his shoulders and shushed the crowed. It was another case of her treating a political opponent in a civilized manner that’s uncommon today.

          That sort of behavior has long prevented Republicans from considering her an enemy even while she advocates policies they may not like.

          At the same time, no one has been more vigorous than Feinstein on issues like torture, of which she has been a major opponent for years, even while voting for laws like the Patriot Act. Although she no longer chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee because Republicans control the Senate, no senator is more active on national security issues, even if some have been much louder.

          The upshot is that Feinstein still operates in much the same manner she has since first getting elected in 1992, when she ousted Republican incumbent John Seymour, who had been appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to the seat he had occupied for eight years.

          When they see that, and they see Feinstein in operation, as television commercials will surely depict, there’s a good chance the age issue making many voters skeptical of whether she should run again could simply disappear. Which means those polls questioning whether someone her age
should be a senator might just turn around completely.


    Email Thomas Elias at 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




          The mid-January announcement from the chief executive of Toyota Motor North America about his company’s new hydrogen-powered Mirai luxury car received almost no attention outside a few trade newsletters.

          “We have asked (dealers) not to make deliveries until we have a station open (near them),” Jim Lentz said on the sidelines of an automotive show in Detroit.

          That translates to many more months of waiting for almost all Californians who have so far ordered the Mirai, the first of many hydrogen fuel cell cars to come on the market. Some dealers list the Mirai with a manufacturer’s suggested price of $58,500, but the net cost actually comes to much less after state and federal tax credits are applied.

          It also means that lousy – some called them corrupt – past decisions by the California Energy Commission are hitting home. The commission each year gives out tens of millions of dollars to aid construction of refueling stations for hydrogen cars which, as long expected, began to arrive around Jan. 1.

          Those grants were supposed to assure an adequate supply of refueling stations would be ready by now. These usually take the form of an additional pump island in a pre-existing gas station.

          Altogether, the Energy Commission has funded 49 stations to the tune of about $96 million, of which it says 14 are now operational. Eventually, it will fund about 100 stations, using gasoline tax money. But the California Fuel Cell Partnership, to whose website the Energy Commission refers questions about locations (, listed only six retail stations open as of Jan. 20. The rest are private, used by bus companies and other fleet operators.

          That’s why Toyota now authorizes only four of its California dealers to deliver the Mirai, and won’t add more until many more stations open, something that's unlikely for at least several months.

          It’s at least partly the result of those past decisions by the Energy Commission, whose members serve at the pleasure of Gov. Jerry Brown. In 2012 and previously, for example, the commission would give hydrogen highway grants only to companies approved by at least one of the eight automakers due to build hydrogen cars. Those grants went mostly to large international industrial gas companies like Linde Group LLC and Air Products & Chemicals Inc.

Until this column exposed that rule, the commission had billion-dollar companies (many of them foreign) decide which other billion-dollar companies would receive tens of millions of tax dollars. This system operated under both Brown and ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

          After the rule was exposed, the commission pulled back $28 million in 2012 grants, delaying them about six months while it developed new rules. This might be one reason Air Products, recipient of $14.2 million for 10 stations, had only three open as 2016 began.

          Then, in 2014, this column exposed an apparent conflict of interest in 20 other tentative refueling station grants to a brand new company that had never built anything. Another significant delay followed while the Energy Commission sought a ruling from the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which eventually allowed the grants in an opinion some lawyers described as “riddled with sophistry.” It was a case of one commission made up entirely of Brown appointees getting approval from another exclusively Brown-appointed commission, the left hand okaying what the right hand wanted to do with many millions in tax dollars.

          Of those 20 stations, the company website listed none open on Jan. 20, but its Coalinga location was actually operating by then.

          Had the grants been clean to begin with, many more stations could be open today, with far more ultra-green hydrogen cars on the road.

          There are other problems, too. One station developer has been delayed by the bankruptcy of a Spanish company making components of its electrolyzing unit. State officials face a months-long backlog in certifying that hydrogen gas (priced at about $8 to $9 per kilogram, roughly equivalent to $3-per-gallon gasoline) is measured accurately when it’s pumped.

          The upshot is that the cleanest cars ever built – hydrogen cars emit only water as exhaust – won’t be a significant presence in California for many months after they could have been, at least in part because of highly questionable decisions and rules made by the commission whose job is to encourage those cars.


    Email Thomas Elias at 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

Monday, January 18, 2016




          There has been little more than dithering from the University of California and its top officials in the year or so since anti-Semitic episodes on several of its best-known and highest-ranked campuses became well known.

          Even faculty members – including some without tenure for whom public protests are risky – complain that the university has “become a breeding ground for hate speech.”

          Of course, some hate speech – like the N word or complaints about female Muslim students wearing Islamic hijab head scarves – is punished almost immediately at UC. It’s almost inconceivable that a student vocal in either of those ways would be able to retain a work-study job paid by the university.

          But nothing has been done about the steady stream of anti-Semitic campus episodes in recent years. These range from vandalism to discrimination against Jewish students in campus appointments to briefly and sporadically impeding Jewish students’ movements on campus. As a result, Jewish groups early last year demanded that the university adopt the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism as its own. The implication was that once a definition exists, deans and other campus officials will be able to punish anti-Semitic behavior and hate speech.

          That definition would label denials of the state of Israel’s right to exist as anti-Semitic, just as it would be anti-Japanese to deny Japan’s right to be Japanese. It would label as anti-Semitic criticisms of Israel for practices routinely engaged in by other countries and it would forbid “demonizing” Jews.

          Even though UC President Janet Napolitano promised in a June radio interview that she would ask the university’s Board of Regents to adopt this policy in July, the subject didn’t arise until September, and then was tabled until November, when a mild statement condemning all hate speech and hateful behavior on campus was proposed. Many regents called that totally inadequate and a committee was named to write a new policy and bring it to the board sometime in the indefinite future.

          That’s the very definition of dithering, and while UC dithers, the anti-Semitism continues. There have been Nazi-style swastikas daubed onto fraternities and a class assigned to wear yellow Star of David patches on their clothes like those Jews were compelled to don under Nazi rule in the 1930s and ‘40s.

          One work-study student with a job at the UCLA Center for Prehospital Care polluted the Facebook page of three-time UCLA alumna Mayim Bialik, once the star of the TV show “Blossom,” who holds a UCLA Ph.D. in neuroscience and strongly supports Israel. “GTFOH (Get the F--- Out of Here) with all your Zionist bullshit,” the female student wrote on Bialik’s page, further calling Jews “Crazy ass fucking troglodyte albino monsters of cultural destruction.” Among other equally reasonable passages.

          After the plainly anti-Semitic student was identified, campus officials issued a statement calling the comments “hateful and offensive,” but did nothing to her. No expulsion or suspension from classes. No docking of work-study pay. Nothing. Yes, there were further remarks deploring what the student did, but that’s all.

          And yet, her writings were as classic an example as can be found of demonizing Jews. Had the Regents adopted the State Department definition last fall, with administrators writing new rules to fit, there could have been punishment of a sort to set an example discouraging similar acts by other students.

          Instead, the employee relations manager of UCLA Health claimed the pirating and polluting of Bialik’s Facebook page was “individual private speech, however reprehensible,” and protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. That’s like saying that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater also is protected free speech. It never has been. More harm and violence has derived from anti-Semitic hate speech than from anything shouted in a theater.

          It’s almost as if UC officials believe there’s a constitutional right to anti-Semitic behavior and rhetoric, with very few limitations. If placing anti-Semitic content on someone’s private social media page constitutes free speech, why not allow the same thing with racist and sexist propaganda, both of which would quickly draw punishment?

          All this means it’s high time for the dithering to stop. If UC’s regents don’t move quickly after seeing how persistent and virulent anti-Semitism has become on their watch, things will be physically dangerous, it form a permanent stain on the university’s world-wide reputation and become an utter disgrace.


    Email Thomas Elias at 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




          Ask environmentalists and labor union activists about differences between the proposed new Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement, better known as NAFTA, and they can’t name many that amount to much.

          That’s because the TPP, which Congress must vote up or down sometime this spring – no amendments allowed – retains many aspects of NAFTA, including its single worst part. Meanwhile, labor leaders say NAFTA has sent many thousands of jobs out of this country and environmental advocates insist it contributes to global climate change.

          But the worst feature is an international tribunal of lawyers from a variety of countries that’s empowered to override some laws of member countries and even to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court.

          This means attorneys from Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Chile, New Zealand, Peru and Brunei might someday help strike down United States -- and California -- laws on anything from clean air to labor conditions and movie copyrights.

          This has happened before and it’s happening right now. The most prominent previous case involved a Canadian company called Methanex, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, which made and marketed a gasoline additive called MTBE that aimed to cut smog. But MTBE turned out to have noxious odors and taste when it leached from gas station storage tanks into ground water. It also was associated with a higher risk of some cancers.

          When California, under ex-Gov. Gray Davis, banned MTBE, Methanex sued in NAFTA’s tribunal and the case was heard in Washington, D.C., far from affected Californians. It took years, and eventually Methanex lost because of MTBE’s health effects, but that case made it clear the day would come when American environmental laws would be overruled by foreign lawyers in the interests of profits for a foreign company.

           Something like that did happen later, when another NAFTA ruling cancelled U.S. dolphin-safe labeling regulations for canned tuna because they could impede free trade. In short, because Mexican fishermen are not careful to avoid catching some dolphins in their nets, American rules designed to save an intelligent species died, again at the hands of foreign lawyers less interested in saving a species than dollars for careless Mexican fishermen.

          Canadian lawyers are at it again now, using NAFTA to challenge President Obama’s right to cancel the planned Keystone XL pipeline project because it might cost jobs in Canada.

          All this represents a major loss of sovereignty for the United States, a loss likely to be felt more sharply in California than anywhere else, because this state’s smog rules are the toughest in the world. What happens when Japanese auto companies tire of adhering to California smog standards and take their case for loose rules to the Trans-Pacific judicial panel? If their lawyers don’t care much about lung disease and premature heart attacks – both associated with dirty air – we can guess what might happen.

          No one could be sure this tribunal was even in the treaty until the full text was released last November. The take-it-or-leave-it rules mean that , if Congress votes for this new treaty, it will give up much of America’s hard-won and hard-defended right to determine its own fate in exchange for the right to sell more rice to Japan and somewhat better copyright laws for California film and music companies.

          The politicians must now decide whether that’s a good tradeoff. President Obama, who tolerated the ultra-secret Atlanta negotiations that produced the final treaty text, calls it a great deal.

          “It’s an agreement that puts American workers first and will help middle-class families get ahead,” Obama said. “It includes the strongest commitments on labor and the environment of any trade agreement in history.” He hints broadly that rejecting this agreement will allow China to dominate trade in Southeast Asia and most of the Pacific.

          Don’t believe it. Countries like Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand and Japan don’t want to be dominated by China. Far more likely, they’ll come back for a new negotiation once they see what American objections are – objections apparently not presented forcefully by Obama aides who helped write the draft treaty.

          So the recommendation here is a no vote by California senators and representatives, who should also make it plain they do want a tariff-free trade zone like this proposal would establish. Just not at the expense of America’s power to decide its own fate.

     Email Thomas Elias at 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

Monday, January 11, 2016




Many of America’s worst traffic bottlenecks are holding up commuters for hours each week even where there’s plenty of mass transit nearby.

That’s the upshot of a new report titled “Unclogging America’s Arteries,” which offers a few nostrums that don’t really figure to solve the problem anytime soon. (

The most prominent conclusion of the study is that 11 of the nation’s 16 worst bottlenecks are in California, the vast majority in Los Angeles and Orange counties. That won’t surprise commuters accustomed to putting up with parking-lot scenes on I-405, U.S. 101, I-110 and I-10 in L.A., but it might surprise San Francisco drivers to learn that the 1.9-mile stretch of I-80 approaching the Bay Bridge from the south and west wastes more time for more people than all but 11 others nationwide.

          It may be more surprising to learn that crowding and delays on I-405 in Orange County are far worse than in New York’s Lincoln Tunnel, costing drivers and their passengers 7.1 million hours of waiting time yearly, more than double what Manhattan and New Jersey folk spend hung up in the always-jammed tunnel system under the Hudson River.

          Similarly, it will probably stun the tens of thousands who commute daily on Houston’s Katy Freeway, I-10’s Texas iteration, to learn they’re not even in the top 50 when it comes to wasting time. That almost has to be an error of omission.

          One remarkable thing about all this is that more than a dozen routes listed among the nation’s most crowded (a stretch of Chicago’s I-90 ranks No. 1) run near and parallel to mass transit. Theoretically, then, it’s possible to bypass the frustrating waits by riding trains or busways.

          Thus, many commuters frustrated by Bottleneck #7, the Ventura Freeway in the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles, could be riding the Metro Orange Line nearby instead, but don’t.

          The same for drivers tied up on I-110 near downtown Los Angeles, who could be on the Metro Gold or Blue lines. Or plenty of drivers on that often-congested stretch of skyway in San Francisco, many of whom could ride BART.

          One lessen here, then, is that mass transit doesn’t solve all congestion. Just look at the I-10 between downtown Los Angeles and the city’s Westside, where commuters sit and wait while trains zip unmolested along the almost parallel, mostly completed Metro Expo Line.

          Altogether, California drivers last year wasted more than 47 million waking hours waiting in traffic along the state’s 15 most congested routes.

          The federal planners who put out the new report appear to have few viable ideas for getting stalled traffic moving. They call for “cost-effective, high-impact” investments to improve traffic, but quickly add that “There is no silver bullet for addressing it.”

          Among their low-cost suggestions are expansion of the 511 telephone traveler information system, and offering advisories that suggest alternate routes via radio stations and message signs. All those techniques already exist on many of the super-crowded California stretches, but they have not gotten traffic moving.

          The planners also suggest using smartphone apps like Waze that let drivers reroute around the worst jams. Those apps have been known to infuriate residents in once-quiet neighborhoods that now see heavy traffic sent their way by the robotic voices of modern cellphones.

          More managed lanes, like the toll lanes already used on some of California’s (former) freeways are another recommendation.

          But the bottom line solution appears to be both simpler and more complex than anything traffic authorities and their planners can do: To move faster, drivers will have to start leaving their cars behind in mass transit parking lots and letting train operators do the driving.

          As long as the vast majority of motorists are unwilling to do that, bottlenecks will be the rule, not the exception in the most populous, most congested parts of California.

    Email Thomas Elias at 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