Wednesday, May 28, 2014




          As expected, it’s now late spring and water rationing is upon California. Despite the heavy mid-February rains that briefly drenched Northern California and the respectable ensuing snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, drought remains.

          It may seem odd, but the opening compulsory rationing measures have come in Northern California, closer to the big rivers now carrying lower-than-usual runoff from the high mountains than the big cities to the south, where water conservation is voluntary, so far.

          Reasons for this include the fact that the Metropolitan Water
District of Southern California draws supplies from the Colorado
River in addition to the Bay Delta region through most of Northern
California’s water flows. The Met has also spent many millions of
dollars over the last 20 years to increase its storage capacity, creating
new reservoirs and upping underground storage.

          So some of the first serious compulsory rationing comes in places
on the fringes of the San Francisco Bay Area, cities like Pleasanton
and Dublin and Santa Cruz, which get much of their water from
local supplies or the state Water Project, but don’t have access to the
water San Francisco draws from its Hetch Hetchy reservoir near
Yosemite National Park.

          Rationing is sensible in some places – like Santa Cruz, where
all homes are now limited to 1,000 cubic feet of water per month, or
about 249 gallons per day. Local officials say the limits are needed
because the area's streams have all but dried up long before their wet
season would normally end.

          But in other places, like Pleasanton, a city of 70,000 on the
eastern edge of the East Bay area, residents and businesses are
compelled to use no more than 75 percent of the water they used at
the same time last year. The more you used in 2013, the more you
can use today without paying penalties, which can see water bills
double or triple upon a first offense and rise on subsequent

          So the water profligates of a year ago have an advantage over
anyone who conserved water in 2013, when there was already
drought, just not as severe. In short, if neighbors each had lawns of
the same size and one watered freely last year, with no regard for
conservation, but the other installed a drip irrigation system and cut
water use substantially, the one who conserved now can use far less
than his profligate neighbor. How fair is that?

          Inequitable situations like this were common in the major
drought of the 1970s, when homeowners or businesses who saw
drought worsening and realized rationing would ensue sometimes
increased their water use to make sure they would have a good
supply once rationing took hold. No one can prove anybody did
that this year, but it’s very possible and it’s a major flaw where cities
ration according to past use.

          Other water use inequities abound, too. How fair is it that
drought or no drought, Sacramento residents (including tens of
thousands of state officials and bureaucrats) use an average of 279
gallons per day, compared with 98 gallons for San Franciscans and
less than 150 per day for Los Angeles residents, whom Northern
Californians habitually accuse of profligacy? Or for residents of ritzy
Hillsborough on the San Francisco Peninsula to use 334 gallons of
water daily, on average, to just 79 for those in far less fortunate East
Palo Alto?

          Plus, while there’s a water metering program in progess in the
Central Valley, about half the homes there still no have water meters
at all, so owners or tenants can use all they want with no penalties.

          As Southern Californians watch this and realize that given
another year of drought, they will also be rationed, plenty will realize
that the more they use now, the more they’ll be able to use later –
unless water rationing is done on a strict per capita basis. 

          Yes, it can sometimes be difficult to know how many persons
reside in each household, but Census data can help – taken in 2010,
it’s still useful. Any household feeling short-changed could complain
and prove it has more occupants than the Census showed.

          That’s not a perfect system, but if adopted statewide, would at
least be more fair than the patchwork of systems gradually being
imposed now, with rationing just beginning and already starting to
lean toward the unfair.


    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 a huge political implication in the big difference between 13.7 billion barrels of oil and 600 million.

          Similarly, there's meaning in the gigantic difference between 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 6.4 billion (the average California household uses about two to three cubic feet of natural gas per day).

          Taken together, it’s the difference between fueling the entire United States for several years and fueling it for only about one month.

          Those are the differences between the amount of oil and gas the federal Energy Department in 2011 estimated lies trapped in the rocks of California’s Monterey Shale geological formation and what it now says can actually be recovered using current technology at today’s prices.

          The gigantic Arabian- or Oklahoma-style resources first said to be available from the Monterey Shale, which stretches south from San Benito County along the western side of the San Joaquin Valley all the way into Southern California, gave rise to a strong drive for massive hydraulic fracturing. Better known as fracking, this technique sees many thousands of gallons of water and acid injected under high pressure deep into the ground, where it blasts apart shale rocks holding oil and gas deposits.

          The 2011 Energy Department estimates, repeated in 2012 and 2013, gave rise to a boom mentality and changed the political balance of environmentalism and job creation in this state.

          Gov. Jerry Brown, who consistently champions measures fighting climate change, refused to back an outright ban or moratorium on fracking in California despite concerns over both production of greenhouse gases and possible pollution of ever-more-vital ground water aquifers.

          Onefactor:A USC study contended that full-blown fracking of the Monterey Shale would spur 2.8 million new California jobs in what seemed like it could become the biggest boom here since the Gold Rush era.

          The author of that study has told reporters the reduction of about 95 percent in official estimates of what can be readily extracted from the Monterey Shale would similarly cut his job-creation forecast.

          Through its information agency, the Energy Department explains the massive cut in its expectations for the Monterey Shale by saying rocks there are warped more than in other heavily-fracked areas like Ohio, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Earthquakes did this. The convolutions they produced in subterranean rocks would make it far harder to extract oil by any current method than previously thought, the EIA said.

          Of course, any estimate that can change by 95 percent in one direction seemingly overnight and for reasons that were long known prior to the initial estimate is not likely to remain stable long. Nor can it be considered highly reliable.

          So the oil industry says it wsill keep driving for fracking, trusting that oil company scientists will devise ways to tap resources the firms have lately rushed to control.

          The politics of all this are still murky. With the latest estimate of Monterey Shale resources now pretty similar to what’s known to exist in untapped offshore California oilfields, logic says a fracking moratorium would cost no more jobs than the current moratorium on new offshore oil drilling.

          In short, environmentalists may argue that a moratorium – embodied in a bill now active in the Legislature – makes as much sense in one place as the other. And Brown, a decades-long supporter of the coastal oil moratorium, might just go along since for the moment, the bottom has fallen out of fracking job-creation forecasts.

          So far, Brown has said nothing, and since he’s surely aware any fluctuating estimate can change right back to where it was before, he’s not likely to anytime soon. Former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, fighting to be Brown’s Republican opponent this fall, has for months made all-out fracking a centerpiece of his economic platform and has yet to change his stance.

          Even so, the drive for fracking has definitely been changed. For the ratio of fracking risks to benefits has now shifted radically – at least for the next year or so – nor are the stakes as high as they were before the late May day when the Energy Department radically changed its tune.

    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

Wednesday, May 21, 2014




          With memories of last fall’s federal government shutdown and several national debt default crises already faded from the public mind, national Democrats no longer appear to believe they have a realistic chance of retaking control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans who wrested it away from them unexpectedly almost four years ago.

          But they might still gain some ground in a few places. Democrats harbor that hope primarily because every poll shows most Americans – even about half those who call themselves Republicans – assign primary blame for government gridlock to the GOP.

          To take control and make San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi speaker again, Democrats would need to win back 17 seats now held by Republicans. That’s probably not going to happen. Because of gerrymandering in many states, Democrats have no chance in the vast majority of the 235 districts now held by the GOP.

          But they still could improve their numbers. Democrats have identified 24 so-called swing seats where Republicans won close elections last year, and two of their most prominent pollsters say they are ahead in 17 of those. If they won all those  – not likely – and hung onto every seat they now hold, they could rid themselves of Speaker John Boehner. Not realistic.

          Every Democratic scenario for making progress in the House, though, requires wins in two of the three California districts among those 24 swing seats.

          In one of those three, Republican David Valadao’s 21st District, Democrats don’t have much realistic hope. Even though voter registration is about even in that Visalia-centered district, Valadao is favored by a 50-40 percent margin over just about any Democrat, say the Democrats’ own surveys.

          But Democrats are in much better shape in the district now held by retiring Republican Gary Miller and on Jeff Denham’s Central Valley turf.

          In Miller’s 31st district, covering much of San Bernardino County, four Democrats and a couple of Republicans are vying for runoff election slots. Before Miller pulled out, the Public Policy Polling firm had him trailing 51-39 percent when voters were asked to compare him with just about any Democrat.

          Democrats have a 41-34 percent voter registration edge in the district, with another 20 percent giving no party preference (Democrats have lately won majorities among these undeclared voters in most places). Miller had the good fortune to face a fellow Republican in his last election, after he and state Sen. Bob Huff topped a fractured list of Democrats in the 2012 primary.

          There’s a good chance one Republican could make the runoff in this district, but the polling numbers suggest it is the Democrats’ to lose. Most likely, the leading Democrat will be either Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, activist Eloise Gomez Reyes or former Congressman Joe Baca. Aguilar has the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and endorsements from more than a dozen Southern California Democratic members of Congress, including most of those from neighboring districts. Gomez draws a slew of endorsements from the likes of Democratic Congress members Xavier Becerra and Raul Grijalva, the National Women’s Political Caucus and several big labor unions.

    Denham, whose 10th District encompasses Modesto, Manteca and Tracy, beat Democrat Jose Hernandez, a former astronaut, by 53-47 percent in 2012, a margin of about 11,000 votes out of 209,000 cast. The Public Policy Polling survey currently shows 37 percent of district voters approve his performance in office, even with the 37 percent who disapprove. He trailed by four percentage points when the poll asked voters whether they’d vote for Denham or a Democrat, without naming any possible opponent.

          Once the opposition acquires a name and face, of course, everything can change in any political race. So even though Democrats look in good shape in those districts, primary election results deciding the candidate finalists will speak loudly about the eventual outcomes.

    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




    With polls showing Californians distrust their state government more than citizens of almost any other state, it’s high time legislators at least began taking small steps toward earning back some of the public faith they have squandered.

          One way to start might be to adopt an idea advanced this spring by Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, now a candidate to become secretary of state, California’s chief elections officer.

          Even before the spring corruption indictments of fellow Democratic Sens. Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco, Padilla realized that one of the least seemly things lawmakers now do is raise campaign dollars right when they are deciding how to vote on important bills.

          Even for the rare senator or Assembly member strong enough to heed the half-century-old advice of former Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh (“If you can’t drink their booze, (sleep with) their women, eat their food and then vote against them, you don’t belong in politics.”), decision-time fund-raising still looks bad and erodes public trust.

          Especially when a legislator then votes precisely the way big-money special interest donors want. It’s often a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question when trying to determine whether lawmakers attract special interest support because of their own voting proclivities or vote the way they do because of special interest donations. Whichever, the practice stinks and looks terrible.

          So Padilla proposes to ban campaign contributions to lawmakers during the final 100 days of each legislative session. That’s not as extreme as forbidding donations during the entire session, but the longer ban (legislative sessions run seven or eight months yearly) might be impractical. For sure, outlawing donations for entire sessions could put legislators seeking reelection at a disadvantage against challengers not subject to a ban, while leaving millionaire self-funded candidates with an even bigger advantage than they often enjoy now.

          A shorter, 100-day ban is something incumbents could live with. They usually enjoy huge advantages over challengers in both fund-raising and the name-recognition that’s so important to political survival in a large state where most voters never lay eyes on a candidate.

          But some of Sacramento’s most prolific fund-raisers say it wouldn’t change much if either fundraising during entire sessions or during the finishing rush were outlawed.

          “It’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Dan Weitzman, who gathers funds for major Democrats. “This simply front-loads fund-raising. You’d simply tell people on July 1 to mail their checks in on Sept. 1 or Sept. 15 or whenever the session ends. Everyone would know it was coming.”

          Adds Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio, a onetime press secretary for ex-Gov. Gray Davis who has worked for three Assembly speakers and run many initiative campaigns, “The concept is great, but the reality is not workable. This would be nothing more than a Band-Aid at best. I favor full disclosure of all donations within 24 hours instead; then everyone will know who’s getting what from whom.”

          But past history indicates that even if donations were posted immediately, very few voters would check on them.

    Still, it’s clear the public wants some kind of action to clean things up in Sacramento, where almost 3 million Californians today languish with no Senate representation at all because their convicted or indicted representatives are suspended while trying to fight off corruption and perjury charges against them.

          So why not start with a small step like Padilla’s proposal? The one thing it would do is keep legislators from staging fund-raising events during the times they cast their most important votes. It is conceivable that not having to confront their big donors might make it a little easier for them to get back to basics, and actually vote their consciences or their constituents’ best interests.

          Doesn’t sound like much, but it could at least lend a little more of the appearance of propriety to a polluted political environment. That’s better than doing no cleanup at all, which is what has happened so far amid all the pious talk of regaining public confidence.

    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

Wednesday, May 14, 2014




          California voters created tectonic changes in state politics four years ago, when they approved the “top two” primary election system that takes effect in races for statewide offices next month.

          There is no longer any guarantee Democrats and Republicans will face off in November runoff elections. In fact, four years ago, primary election voters set up more than two dozen intra-party runoffs matching Democrat on Democrat or Republican on Republican in legislative and congressional contests. It could happen in more than one statewide race this year.

          Every poll in 2010 showed that voters acted because they were sick of polarization and gridlock in Sacramento. They got what they wanted, says a new report from a University of Southern California institute funded primarily by ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

          Voters also may have inadvertently set up a de facto third political party in Sacramento, a moderate one, even if it’s not formally recognized by anyone. For lack of a better term, this group might be called the “Blue Dogs,” borrowing a name from a group of moderate to conservative Democrats who served in Congress in the 1990s and carefully picked and chose which liberal causes to support.

          Just such a group now exists in Sacramento, and it promises to grow larger after the June primary that’s already taking place via ballots mailed out this month. The group has no formal organization, but that might come as its numbers grow.

          Based on an analysis of all roll-call votes in both the state Legislature and Congress, USC political scientist Christian Grose found the average state legislator was more moderate over the last 18 months than for many years previously (

    Diminished polarization of the parties in the Legislature took place against a background of ever-increasing partisanship in Congress, a phenomenon applying in both the House and Senate.

          Most movement, Grose found, occurred among Democrats. This may partly be because, as noted in an investigation by former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gary Cohn, increasing numbers of Democratic legislators are less beholden to labor unions for their campaign money and more dependent on corporations and the state Chamber of Commerce.

          Cohn found that some of these lawmakers – he  named Marin County’s Marc Levine and Republican-turned-Democrat Steve Fox of Palmdale as prime examples – skipped or abstained from several key votes. Abstentions affected the fate of bills aiming to help farm workers, require economic impact reports for proposed new big box stores and require more disclosure from some health insurance companies before they raise rates.

          One possible addition to the Blue Dog ranks this year might be Steve Glazer, until last year a top advisor to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who later worked as a consultant to the chamber. Glazer, an Orinda city councilman, now seeks an Alameda County seat in the Assembly.

          “I am trying to redefine what it means to be a Democrat,” Glazer told one reporter.

          For sure, Glazer has parted company with the labor unions that support most Democratic campaigns. But that doesn’t make him any less liberal on issues from gay rights to gun control and abortion, areas of relatively little interest to business.

          How many Blue Dogs get elected this fall will in large part be a product of the current primary. The more Democrat-on-Democrat races ensue, the more contests will pit union contributions against business dollars.

          Their outcomes can be surprising, too, as when former Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom two years ago won in an Assembly district created by reapportionment over Democratic Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, a strong labor ally who previously represented a district that marginally overlapped the new one. Butler now seeks a vacant state Senate seat and will very likely this fall face another Democratic rival not funded by unions.

          No one can be quite certain how all this will play out in the long term: A moderate wing for the most liberal state Democratic Party in the nation? A three-party system?

          These are the kind of non-automatic, unpredictable developments that make voting both worthwhile and fun.

    Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is




          Looking for a new reason to distrust a state government that won’t even expel legislators when they’ve been indicted or convicted?

          Then examine $46.5 million in grants announced by the state Energy Commission in early May for building refueling stations to serve the hydrogen-powered cars due to appear on California roads as early as next year. These grants thoroughly pollute the coming hydrogen highway.

          Fully 58 percent of the money – $27.5 million – will go to one company if the commission gives its final approval. Action was due May 14, with the commission’s agenda estimating it would need just 10 minutes to dole out the funds.

          What’s wrong with that? The company getting all that cash – from vehicle license fees – is FirstElement Fuel, which has never built or managed anything. Its co-president is Dr. Tim Brown, until last Oct. 1 a senior scientist in the Advanced Power and Energy Program at UC Irvine.

          While there, Brown was the principal designer of the Energy Commission’s map for placement of hydrogen stations, most to consist of pumps added into existing service stations. Under a contract with UCI, Brown also trained Energy Commission staffers on how to use the material he developed for the commission. Some of those staffers evaluated grant applications this spring.

          If these obvious conflicts of interest aren’t problematic enough, there’s also the fact FirstElement filed a 900-page grant application barely four months after Brown left UCI. It included commitments from more than 20 service stations to allow FirstElement to install hydrogen pumps. Officials of competing companies say it’s unprecedented to recruit so many stations and develop a 900-page proposal in so little time.

          About one week after this column revealed in early March that Brown had applied for tens of millions of grant dollars under a system he essentially designed, the Energy Commission requested a written opinion from the state Fair Political Practices Commission on whether Brown was in conflict of interest. In its 40-year history, the Energy Commission never before requested such an opinion.

    That opinion emerged as a rubber-stamp document filled with legal sophistry. Example: “Dr. Brown was an employee of UC Irvine while operating under a contract with the Energy Commission. The research and education that the Energy Commission gained during that contract might have informed (his grant application), but we cannot say the contracts are the same or even that one necessarily led into the other,” the FPPC said. Translation: the state’s ethics watchdog says Brown can receive the state money because it can’t prove he drew the map to benefit himself. Even if this was possible.

          Of course, the state Supreme Court in 1980 ruled that conflict of interest laws are intended “not only to strike at actual impropriety, but also to strike at the appearance of impropriety.” The FPPC cited this passage, but then paid it no heed. FPPC general counsel Zackery (cq) Morazzini refused to answer questions about the ruling, as did Brown, his attorney and Energy Commission officials.

          Then there’s the fact that FirstElement’s proposal exposed the new company as something like a surrogate for the large international commercial fuel firm Air Products and Chemicals, which saw grants of its own pulled back by the Energy Commission after this column in 2012 revealed a pattern of cronyism in that year’s awards.

          FirstElement’s proposal says the company is a “consortium 
of partners,” with financing from Toyota Motor Sales and all 
equipment and hydrogen fuel to come from Air Products, which 
will also install the pumps. Executives of Air Products and Toyota 
for years have attended meetings of the California Fuel Cell 
Partnership (annual dues: $87,000) with Energy Commission 
staffers. This was part of what led to the earlier allegations of 

          So contrary to the FPPC’s convoluted opinion, the large new grants to Brown and FirstElement reek of conflict of interest and a revival of cronyism.

          Which means that if the Energy Commission, as expected, gives final approval to the announced grants, Californians will have a dirty hydrogen highway and one more multi-million-dollar reason to distrust state government.

     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

Wednesday, May 7, 2014




          With no serious contest at the top of next month’s primary election ballot and none likely to emerge this fall, the multi-candidate run for California secretary of state has drawn a lot of political attention. But the intra-party race for state schools superintendent offers at least as much contrast and might just have more consequences down the line.

          Neither of these offices generally draws much election-time energy from voters, but the spectacle of secretary of state candidate Leland Yee – a Democratic state senator from San Francisco – being dragged off in handcuffs even as he sought to become California’s chief elections officer put more focus on the post than it’s gotten in decades.

          And yet, the run for the nominally non-partisan school superintendent post might involve the more important job. For sure, there’s a lot of contrast between the two main candidates here, incumbent Tom Torlakson and former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck. (A third candidate has managed to raise only a small fraction of the money and support generated by the other two.)

          The 40-year-old Tuck was president of the Green Dot charter school operation before he began running a 15,000-student group of 17 failing schools awarded to former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's jurisdiction as a kind of consolation prize after a slate of “reform” candidates he backed he failed to take over the local school board late in the last decade.

          Ask Tuck how things might change if he ousts former schoolteacher and ex-Assemblyman Torlakson and he mentions more local control of curriculum, budgets and staffing; possible restructuring of the school day, and a vast reduction of the public schools’ rule book, the 2,300-page state education code.

          But others cast this race as a contest about teacher unions. In fact, the majority of Torlakson’s campaign kitty comes from labor-linked sources, while Tuck claims to have 1,100 individual donors. Most donors of more than $1,000 to his campaign are business executives or owners.

          Under Torlakson, the desired policy of the huge California Teachers Association to keep seniority as the main criterion for deciding which teachers to lay off in hard times has been retained. Tuck, on the other hand, says it’s now too difficult to fire incompetent teachers, as determined by a combination of student test scores, principal evaluations and suspension and graduation rates. He would try to use those factors in some kind of combination with seniority when layoffs must occur.

          Tuck cites a 60 percent increase in four-year graduation rates at the public schools he managed, plus a 58 percent graduation rate at Green Dot schools (compared to 35 percent overall for Los Angeles schools at the time), as major accomplishments. But graduation rates have improved considerably for California schools overall in recent years, and there’s the fact that charter school parents are often more involved in their kids’ education than those at ordinary schools.

          Does he want to get rid of teacher unions and privatize public schools, as charged by Torlakson backers?  “I have only worked in union schools,” the Harvard Business School graduate asserts. “Green Dot teachers were the first charter group with their own union contract. But there are policies the CTA now defends that I disagree with. For one thing, I don’t like giving tenure after just two years. That’s too soon to really judge a teacher. Plus, the time is actually shorter than two years, because principals have to make tenure recommendations in January of a new teacher’s second year, so it’s really decided after only 18 months at the local level. And it is just too difficult to remove grossly underperforming teachers or those with grossly inappropriate conduct.”

          So even though Tuck insists he has no problem with teacher unions, he has a lot of problems with some protections afforded their members. He can play down his differences with unions all he wants at election time, but it’s clear he would try for major changes once in office.

          And change has been very slow in California public schools, where state superintendents appear to come and go every four or eight years, usually without major impact on the school system.

          That perception is one reason this race is important: More than any other statewide contest this year, this one is about whether voters want major changes.

     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




    Kabuki Dance -- an activity carried out in real life in a predictable or stylized fashion… refers to an event that is designed to create the appearance of conflict or of an uncertain outcome, when in fact the actors have worked together to determine the outcome beforehand -- Merriam Webster Dictionary

    For many decades, the California Public Utilities Commission and the big companies it regulates – Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric have engaged in an elaborate Kabuki dance every time any company wants to raise rates.

          Each time, the companies name a figure that’s preposterously high, then moan a little when the PUC knocks it back – and the consumers end up paying steadily more and more, to the point where California electric rates are the highest in the 48 contiguous states.

          Now the Kabuki pattern has extended to other forms of PUC business with those same companies, including the commission’s entirely justified efforts to penalize PG&E for its negligent (word employed by federal authorities who have indicted the firm) management of natural gas pipelines and the efforts by Edison and SDG&E to have their customers foot most of the bills for their blunders at the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Power Station.

          As usual, the new Kabuki dances take the form of utilities asking preposterous amounts. Also as usual, they will get knocked back but, it now appears, not nearly as far as they should be. In both cases, the companies should get no new money at all for handling disasters they’ve created and trying to prevent new ones.

          PG&E, for example, seeks billions of dollars in new rates plus more money to upgrade its pipeline system, when it has been dunning consumers since the 1950s for just such upgrades and maintenance, while not carrying enough of it out. No one knows just where the maintenance money went, or how much has not been spent as it should have been. The obvious decision here should be to deny any PG&E rate increase until the pipelines are up to snuff, as determined by an outside authority.

          San Onofre, involving majority plant owner Edison and its minority partner SDG&E, is a bit different. This plant operated well until February 2012, when a tube leak caused the failure of costly steam generators, eventually forcing one of California’s two nuclear power plants into retirement.

          Immediately, Edison and SDG&E began buying replacement electricity, much of it from “peaker” plants nearby that operate mostly at times of the greatest power use. The companies right away charged their customers not only for the usual costs associated with maintaining San Onofre and their guaranteed rate of profit on their investments in it, but also for the replacement power.

          So customers were paying twice for the same power, all due to the mistakes of Edison (the plant’s manager) and its supplier, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

          Edison is trying to get billions of dollars back from Mitsubishi, which designed the faulty steam generators.

          The utility has essentially asked $4.7 billion from its customers for retirement costs at San Onofre, the replacement energy and continuing San Onofre costs. When Edison and SDG&E last month agreed to take about one-fourth less, there were major headlines like this incorrect one from the Los Angeles Times, “Customers would get $1.4 billion in refunds in San Onofre deal.”

          Not exactly. Customers looking for such refunds on their monthly bills will be disappointed, for even Matthew Freeman, attorney for the consumer group Toward Utility Rate Normalization, who negotiated the agreement with the San Onofre partners, says funds returned to consumers would come as reduced future rates, rather than cash.

          “We started out this negotiation saying the customers should not pay for replacement energy if they’re still paying San Onofre operating costs,” he said. “That principle is preserved here.” So Freeman and TURN think they got the best deal the PUC would ever approve.

          But Ray Lutz, head of the El Cajon-based consumer group Citizens’ Oversight (not part of the negotiation) says that leaves the utilities with what he calls “an outright theft of $3 billion.”

          “Edison was imprudent, they made a big design mistake and blew it with San Onofre,” he said. “The ratepayers should not be paying for this.”

          But they likely will, just as PG&E customers figure to pay plenty for PG&E’s negligence. That’s what the kabuki dance is about, and there are no signs it will end soon.

    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