Utility Giant, Texas Oil Companies Fight Back With California Voter Initiatives

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An anti-tax group and a coalition of businesses quietly led by Texas oil companies have launched a signature drive for a November ballot initiative that would suspend California's pioneering law to combat global warming.

Meanwhile, a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E)-bankrolled measure that consumer groups and other utility companies characterize as a--ahem--power grab by the Northern California energy giant has already made the June 8 ballot.

Assembly Bill 32, which requires California greenhouse gas levels to be rolled back to 1990 levels by 2020, was signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, naturally, opposes the initiative, saying it would cripple the state's emerging clean-energy industry.

But backers maintain the measure, which suspends those greenhouse-gas goals until the jobless rate drops back to 2006 levels, is needed if California wants to recover from the recession. AB32 will increase fuel and energy costs, which will be passed on to consumers, they maintain.

"This is going to have a hit on the California economy," Bill Day, director of media relations for the Valero Energy Co., tells the Contra Costa Times. "Let's not do this at a time when the economy can least afford it. To me, that's common sense."

Valero operates oil refineries in Solano and Los Angeles counties, but initiative opponents note the company is based in San Antonio, Texas, and has pumped $50,000 into the so-called "California Jobs Initiative." Tesoro, another Texas-based oil company that operates a refinery north of Concord, is another reported financial backer.

A coalition of California public utilities, including the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, filed a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court Thursday to disqualify Prop. 16, "The Taxpayers Right to Vote Act," from the June 8 ballot.

Opponents contend the initiative is "false and misleading," that it hides "its true nature and purpose from voters," and that it is a secret attempt by PG&E "to lock in its monopoly in its existing territories," reports the Sacramento Bee.

Perhaps tellingly, Southern California Edison (SCE) is staying on the sidelines for this one, supporting neither the initiative nor the lawsuit.

But San Francisco-based PG&E has vowed to spend as much as $35 million to pass the measure that would require publicly owned utility expansion plans to win a two-thirds vote of residents in the public utility's existing boundaries and in new areas to be served.

The real aim, claim the plaintiffs, is to stifle competition from smaller utility companies and municipalities like San Francisco that want to provide ratepayers PG&E serves or would like to serve cleaner, lower-priced energy.

PG&E responds by playing the populist card (which is all the rage these days, after all).

"These entities and the politicians would rather go to the courts than go to the people," PG&E spokeswoman Robin Swanson tells the Bee. "Besides, their claims are baseless, and they have missed all the constitutional deadlines to get it off the ballot.

"This is a Keystone Kop approach to get the media to talk about their own ballot arguments."
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