Power to the People?

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U.S. President George W. Bush is not the brightest kid on the block, but atleast he has a sense of humour.

"You can fool some of the people all of the time," Bush reportedly quippedat a Washington dinner, "and those are the ones you want to concentrate on."

Unfortunately, for power-starved California, the joke is a perfect metaphorfor the White House's national energy plan. California, home of SiliconValley, Hollywood and a trillion-dollar economy, is suffering an energycrisis. At least that's what those trustworthy folk governing Washington aresaying. Many analysts, however, have their doubts.

"We're told there's just not enough electricity and gas," columnist Gregory Palast wrote recently Britain's Observer. "Even the Democrats and the New York Times agree there's an energy crisis in California - whichis evidence enough to conclude: There is no energy crisis in California."

Need more proof? Listen to Medea Benjamin, founding director of Global Exchange, a San Francisco corporate-accountabilitygroup.

"Companies controlling California's energy supply are manipulating themarket to make obscenely high profits at our expense," Benjamin wrote in theSan Francisco Chronicle late last month. "Duringthe past several months, the news media have unveiled the way generators areturning power plants off and on as often as several times an hour; takingpower plants off line for 'unscheduled maintenance,' and simply refusing tosell California power."

The result, which has put billions into the pockets of power suppliers, mostof them out of state, has put a huge hole in the wallets of Californiaresidents. In the summer of 2000, for instance, state residents andbusinesses paid $10.9-billion more for electricity than the year before.This summer's bill is expected to go higher. Meanwhile, a recent AssociatedPress story reported that pawn-shops across California are booming as poorresidents are selling off their belongings to raise money to pay theirutility bills.

How did this happen? In 1996, former California Republican Gov. Pete Wilsonsigned a bill deregulating most of the state's energy system. About25 per cent of California's power is controlled by federal, stateand municipal agencies - but more on that later.

The system was supposed to foster competition, lower prices and prove onceagain why the free market is God's gift to Earth. Instead, energy bills wentthrough the roof, rolling blackouts were imposed, and out-of-statecompanies - which were allowed to purchase power plants across California -made a fortune by manipulating the market.

Meanwhile, cities like Los Angeles, which operates its own publiclyregulated generating stations, have been spared the "shortages" that havefaced the rest of the state. In late-April, the Los Angeles Times explained its fortune with this headline, "How KilowattSocialism Saved L.A. from the Energy Crisis."

For those with the misfortune to be at the mercy of an unregulated marketplace,a group of activists is organizing a protest on June 21st. They are callingfor people around the world to turn off their power between 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., local time, to protest Bush's handling of the energy "crisis." The rolling blackouts wouldmove across time zones.

But, still, the White House insists, there is an energy crisis. And to boot,they have a solution: open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oilexploration and build more nuclear power plants.

In response, 250 U.S. scientists wrote Bush in May warning him that openingthe refuge, "to oil exploration will not improve our energy security, norwill it have any impact on the price of gasoline."

Drilling in the refuge would provide only one per cent of global oil supply,a trivial amount that would not affect prices. But "economicallyrecoverable amount of oil in the refuge is just 152 days of supply for thatnation." This doesn't even take into account the environmental damage.

The benefits of building a nuclear station in earthquake-proneCalifornia seems elusive at first glance. To everyone, that is, except the friends of Vice-President Dick Cheney, whose last job was as CEO of Halliburton Corp.. Among other contracts, Brown and Root Services, a Halliburton subsidiary, operates the Devonport Royal Naval Dockyard for theBritish navy, the United Kingdom's sole refitting and refuelling locationfor nuclear power submarines.

So, what is the relevance of all of this to those of us north of the 49th parallel? Well, the current American situation may just be a sobering glimpse of our future. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) jeopardizes - among many other things - the sovereignty of our natural resources. As Canadian provinces look to jump on the energy-privatization bandwagon, we may soon be heading down the same high-priced energy-deprived road.

Alejandro Bustos is a 25-five-year-old journalist based in Toronto.He works as a reporter/editor on the Canadian Press World Desk.During his time off, his hobby is to dig up dirt on governments aroundthe world.

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