Monday, May 27, 2013




What happens when a big government study undermines the assumptions made by the writers of another pricey official report?

          Obvious, isn’t it? When studies or parts of studies contradict each other’s basic conclusions and assumptions, the ones that monied interests dislike will usually be ignored.

          So it is today, with four big government agencies combining to present California officials and the public seven potential outlines of how to achieve the state’s goal of getting 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources (solar and wind) within the next seven years.

          The seven alternatives are presented as possible blueprints for something called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (see it at The writers are staffers of the state Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The alternatives might as well have been designed by the Southern California Edison Co., Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric. Any or all of them would guarantee big profit increases to those companies, even though they present slightly varying methods of placing wind turbines and gigantic new arrays of solar panels in California's vast deserts.

          The new installations would go into a two million acre area about the size of the state of Indiana covering parts of Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Their effects would be felt on electric bills everywhere in California not served by a municipally-owned utility.

          Each of the plans would necessitate installing many miles of power transmission lines to bring the new electricity to users. Since electric rates are based in part on costs incurred when utilities build infrastructure, the three big power companies would net about 11.2 percent profit on the money – which they will get from their customers – annually over the next 20 to 30 years. Figure at least $4 billion additional profit for them during that time.

          But it turns out there’s a much cheaper way to accomplish the renewable-power goal, one that doesn’t involve nearly as many desert acres or power lines.

          As outlined in a 2012 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, use of photovoltaic solar panels on contaminated land, mine sites and rooftops could produce about the same amounts of energy as the large solar thermal arrays planned in the Desert Energy Plan, several of which are now under construction deep in the Mojave Desert. (See the EPA report at

The Desert Energy Plan doesn’t even mention the EPA report, but does seem to discount it by finding that many California rooftops are unavailable for solar energy because of building orientation (roofs facing north), structural integrity (they’re not strong enough to hold the panels) or “other reasons.” Use of rooftops and contaminated land in urban areas (land unsuitable for building because too much oil or chemical residue is present) would also necessitate upgrades to local power distribution systems.

          While some buildings may be unsuitable, as the Desert Energy Plan says, plenty of others would do just fine. There are also myriad acres of urban parking lots still uncovered by the solar panels now used at a few locations. And the EPA lists eight contaminated California sites from Sacramento to northern San Diego County now covered at least in part by photovoltaic panels that currently produce just over 12 megawatts of power. The report suggests there are many more sites that could also be put to this use, but used for little else.

          Even if local power distribution lines have to be expanded or upgraded, that would still be a lot cheaper than building hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles of transmission towers and lines.

          The fact that electricity rates will rise when the new desert solar thermal arrays, some almost finished, go online in the next couple of years has been widely reported and documented. No one has been able to pinpoint the amount of the rate increases, in large part because the state Public Utilities Commission refuses to divulge how much some of those projects will cost. But it’s reasonable to expect an increase of at least 10 percent to rates that are already among America’s highest.

          For the big agencies putting together the Desert Energy Plan to totally ignore the EPA’s recent report suggests they are less interested in the most efficient and least costly ways to produce renewable power than they are in devising a simple, elegant plan that would also please the utilities.

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




          Fears abound as California faces the reality that besides all its other natural wonders, it sits atop an Arabian-sized oil and natural gas bonanza that can only be exploited via the process of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

          One fear is that when oil drillers insert the mix of water, sand and chemicals used to force raw petroleum products out of rock formations, they will pollute drinking water supplies and water wells used by farmers atop the Monterey Shale formation. This rich formation, containing an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil, stretches from Monterey and San Benito counties south along the western side of the San Joaquin Valley, roughly parallel to the Interstate 5 freeway.

          So far, there is no evidence in California to back the water pollution worries, although questions have been raised near fracking operations in Wyoming.

          Another fear is that that Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan for two “peripheral tunnels” to help preserve the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers while bringing more water south and aiding endangered species is a Trojan horse. The real purpose, some say, is not to slake the thirst of farmers or Southern and Central California cities, but to provide massive amounts of water for use in fracking.

          Then there’s the fear that massive new oil and gas supplies emanating from California might destabilize the world’s economic balance of power, bringing oil prices down as it makes the United States the world’s largest oil producer by 2017. This could wreck economies from the Arab world to Russia and South America, where oil revenues now prop up regimes run by figures like Vladimir Putin and the heirs of Hugo Chavez. If oil prices dropped precipitately, this theory goes, the governing systems of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and many other places could be upset and no one knows what forces might try to bring them down.

          None of these fears is the least bit irrational, even if the oil industry steadfastly discounts them and fracking has gone on for years in semi-depleted oil fields here, as well as in states as varied as Virginia and North Dakota. So far, the only fear that has found its way into California courts is the possibility of environmental and water table damage from fracking fluids.

          Exploratory drilling in Monterey County was stopped in March when a magistrate judge in San Jose ruled the federal Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act by proceeding without in-depth environmental studies covering effects on everything from water tables to livestock and earthquakes.

          Meanwhile, moves to regulate fracking abound in the Legislature, where the most sensible might be one by Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone of Scotts Valley, which would require companies to disclose the source and amounts of water they use in fracking, as well as getting approval from regional Water Quality Control Boards before disposing of used chemical/water mixes.

          Others bills moving through the Legislature aim to halt the entire process up to five years for extensive environmental studies.

          But the oil industry strongly opposes any kind of moratorium. “The industry supports a regulatory structure,” a Western States Petroleum Assn. lobbyist told a reporter. “It’s in our best interests that we have disclosure, transparency. But not a moratorium.”

          The enormous potential economic impact of all this petroleum might end up overwhelming all environmental concerns. The California Manufacturers and Technology Assn. calls the Monterey Shale a “game changer” that could provide more than 500,000 new jobs in some of the more depressed parts of the state and nation, with billions of dollars in new tax revenues coming to state, local and federal governments.

          That means Congress, dollar signs in its eyes and driven by companies that already seek to export fracked natural gas in a liquefied form, might pass legislation to supersede any rules state lawmakers could impose.

          The trick here, then, is to exploit the bonanza, but do it in a way that protects existing farms, industry and water supplies. Oil wells and healthy people have coexisted for almost a century in places like Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. Why not also in the Coast Range and the Central Valley?

          Which means California should proceed with this, but only if it can do it well and safely.

     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




          As the election neared last year and it became clear that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney could not possibly win without more Latino support than he had so far earned, the national GOP made a symbolic move.

          The party hired Bettina Inclan, once an Arnold Schwarzenegger operative in California, to spearhead outreach to Hispanic voters. There was never a moment’s talk about changing Romney’s approach on issues of big interest to Latinos – things like immigration and health care. The supposed outreach effort ended in utter failure, as Democrat Barack Obama won 77 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally and even more in California.

          The GOP has done a full share of navel-staring self-analysis since then, trying to figure out how and why it lost the White House and allowed Democrats to gain ground in the U.S. Senate and House, when almost all analysts before the election year began expected them to lose ground in all those areas.

          Now the GOP has figured out what to do about its poor performance: Put on some new makeup.

          Fittingly, national Republican leaders met in the same Hollywood hotel-shopping-entertainment complex that annually hosts the Academy Awards, where one of the top Oscars goes for the best job of changing appearances cosmetically.

          The national GOP substantially echoed what the party’s new California chairman, former state Sen. Jim Brulte, said two months earlier, just before he won his post.

          He would not advocate any serious changes in party positions or platform planks, Brulte told this column then. Rather, he listed three areas as his top priorities: renewing Republican fund-raising operations, recruiting many more grass-roots volunteers than the party recently has and "rebuilding the party's bench" by recruiting candidates for legislative and local races who have a chance to win because they "look like, sound like and share the values of the people in their neighborhoods."

          Meanwhile, speaker after speaker at the Republican National Committee’s springtime meeting in Hollywood told the party’s chiefs they need to be part of the communities they’d like to represent, and not only at election time; that they need to highlight areas of shared interest and that they must promote more minority and women candidates.

          Nothing there about making sure more of the minority people they want to represent get quality education and health care. Nothing about helping undocumented relatives and friends of citizens gain legal immigration status. Immigration, especially, is a key issue because of a finding in a recent survey from the often-reliable Latino Decisions polling firm: about two-thirds of Latino voters are personally acquainted with or related to at least one undocumented immigrant.

Yes, some Republican senators have lately become willing to go along with a path to citizenship lasting 13 years or more, a course seeming so long and remote that many immigrants view it as virtually unattainable.

          Even that arduous path is too much for many House Republicans – often more harshly conservative than their Senate brethren who generally serve more diverse constituencies.

          Republican committee members also were unwilling to compromise on changing the party’s platform positions.

          Instead, after making Inclan their national director of outreach to all manner of ethnic voters, they also hired two operatives for outreach among Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters – two groups that, while not as numerous as Latinos, also went Democratic by huge margins last year.

          “If you don’t ask for the order, you’re not going to get the sale,” said national chairman Rance Priebus, in language that almost paraphrased Brulte.

          Again, no talk about changing positions, only about changing the way the party tries to appeal to voter groups that until recently attracted virtually none of its attention.

          The bottom line: Republicans are essentially telling Latinos, Asian-Americans and others to vote for them because the GOP wants their votes. The apparent presumption is that these voters will respond just because the GOP would like them to.

          But things don’t work that way. Sure, a party has to let voters know it wants them and likes them. But it also has to demonstrate that its candidates care about the same things that drive those voters. To presume Latinos and Asians will be different from all other groups and respond to mere cosmetic changes in appearance, with no shifts in substance, is like whistling past the graveyard, something Republicans have often done in recent years while they thought they were reaching out.

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




If there’s one dominant reason for the distrust many Californians feel for governments at all levels, it’s the sense that special interests regularly pour millions of dollars into federal, state and local election campaigns while contriving to hide their identities.

That reality makes SB52, the so-called DISCLOSE Act sponsored by Democratic state Sens. Mark Leno of San Francisco and Jerry Hill of San Mateo County, the single most important measure state lawmakers will consider this year.

Yes, they’ll face other big and contentious issues. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget bills will get plenty of attention from the public and the Legislature before this month is out. So will plans for two massive tunnels to carry Sacramento River water south. No one will ignore the debate about how to divvy up new tax money from last year’s Proposition 30 among public school districts.

          Each of these deserves all the attention it can get. But none will deal with the most basic issue standing between citizens and the politicians they elect, the same issue that makes voters distrust many ballot proposition campaigns.

          The problem is money, which the most formidable state Assembly speaker ever, Jesse Unruh, famously called “the mother’s milk of politics.”

          Money has poured into politics in unprecedented quantities since the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United decision, the one declaring corporations the equivalent of human beings, giving them the right to donate limitless amounts to political campaigns so long as those campaigns are not controlled directly by candidates.

This led to so-called independent expenditure committees, which run ads that at the very least, often dovetail with those of the candidates they back and hide the identities of outfits that actually put up the money.

          There is no federal initiative process, so Citizens United can’t be reversed by the people. It would take years to pass a constitutional amendment overturning this, and there is no serious move afoot now for such an amendment.

          Which means anyone worried about honesty in elections, anyone interested in knowing which candidates are beholden to whom or what persons or companies are behind any particular ballot proposition, needs an antidote of a different kind.

          The most effective vaccine against political lies and obfuscation is knowledge of who’s paying the piper, because that person or company will usually also call the tunes to which candidates dance.

          Enter the DISCLOSE Act. Sponsored last year by former Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Ventura County, now in Congress, this measure would force every political TV commercial in California to disclose its three largest funders prominently for six seconds at the start of the ads, rather than using small print at the end. Similar rules would apply to print ads, radio spots, mass mailers, billboards and websites. Ads would also have to list a website that shows their 10 largest donors and links to all contributors of $10,000 or more.

          Doing this could end many subterfuges in politics, including items like last year’s last-minute dumping of millions of dollars into California ballot proposition campaigns by out-of-state groups with vague names and anonymous donors. There would be no more point for tobacco companies opposed to local anti-smoking regulations, for one example, to call their committee “Californians for Statewide Smoking Regulations,” when it's really out to kill such laws. For the companies themselves would be named in white-on-black lettering in good-sized fonts.

This measure passed the Assembly last year, but time ran out before the Senate considered it. So it’s back for another try, and because it would revise and enhance the 1974 Political Reform Act, passed by voters as an initiative, it needs two-thirds majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate.

          Good as SB52 sounds, it’s not quite a match for a failed measure put forward almost 10 years ago that would have required much the same information, but would also have demanded that it be displayed in type matching the largest size anywhere else in the ad.

          Other open-government bills are making their way through the Legislature this year, but if this one passes, California voters could quickly become the best informed in the nation. And, like many other trends from medical marijuana to lower property taxes, if it happens in California, you can count on it happening in other states soon.

          But only if it gets two-thirds votes in both houses of the Legislature, no sure thing when many members themselves depend on obfuscated, big donors.

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