Bush’s big favor to PG&E

Pub date February 13, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL If there were ever any doubt about the political forces arrayed behind the move to demolish San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy dam, this should put it to rest: President George W. Bush, who has done nothing but attack, undermine, and cut funding for public parks and environmental initiatives since the day he took office, suddenly wants to spend $7 million to study restoring the valley behind the dam.

That’s right. Tucked into the Bush administration’s Department of the Interior budget is a special allocation that just happens to match exactly what the state of California said it would cost for the next step in pursing dam removal in Yosemite National Park.

Initial signs are that the plan isn’t going anywhere: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that funds Interior, says she’ll never let the money go through. Even Republican Rep. George Radanovich, who represents the Yosemite area in Congress, says he opposes the idea and has no idea why the administration is pushing it.

Well, we have a clue.

Bush isn’t much of an environmentalist, and it’s hard to believe he really cares about creating a new wilderness area in California. But he’s a hell of a privatizer and supports almost anything that shifts public resources into the hands of profit-making companies. And blasting the city’s water and hydropower dam to dust would be a huge favor to one of the nation’s largest private electric companies — and a huge blow to public power efforts in San Francisco.

Feinstein points out — correctly — that the dam provides fresh water to almost three million people in the Bay Area. But it also provides electric power — not enough to light all of San Francisco, but enough to provide a nice solid base for a municipally owned electricity system. In fact, the dam itself is the biggest argument for kicking Pacific Gas and Electric Co. out of town: the act of Congress that allowed San Francisco to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley for water also mandated that the dam generate electricity and that this cheap power be sold to the residents and businesses of the city as a public alternative to the PG&E monopoly.

PG&E is terrified by the prospect of losing a single customer to public power and for good reason: electricity controlled by public agencies is consistently cheaper and, these days, more environmentally sound than the stuff you buy from PG&E. Up in Yolo County, businesses recently realized they were paying more money for power than their colleagues (and competitors) a few miles away in Sacramento, so they moved to join the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. PG&E spent more than $10 million on a campaign to defeat the proposal — and that area involved only 77,000 customers. Imagine what the company would be willing to do to halt the growing calls for public power in San Francisco, a market roughly five times that size.

It’s no coincidence the company is pouring cash into a public-relations campaign aimed at burnishing its environmental image. And as we report in "PG&E’s Poll" on page 10, pollsters apparently working for PG&E have been market-testing several ballot initiatives that would directly attack the city’s ability to go into the power business.

But tearing down the dam would be a far more effective assault. Without the dam the federal mandate for public power would vanish, as would a free (we paid for it long ago), reliable, copious source of renewable electricity that uses no fossil fuels.

Sure, there’s an environmental argument for tearing down the dam — as soon as those 400 megawatts of electricity can be replaced by city-owned solar, wind, or tidal power. But that’s years off. For now the alternative to hydro is largely fossil fuels, which makes the green case for removing the dam shaky at best.

So let’s be serious here: This is not about environmental restoration. It’s about keeping San Francisco out of the power business and preserving PG&E’s private monopoly. That’s so perfectly in line with the Bush administration’s political philosophy that we’d be stunned if PG&E and its allies weren’t the ones who got that $7 million allocation snuck into the Bush budget.

All of which is, of course, an excellent reason for Congress to scrap this budget item, and it appears that will happen. But it’s also reason for public power advocates to go on full alert: PG&E isn’t sitting back and waiting for the next municipalization campaign. The company is making its own plans to cut public power off at the knees — and that means the progressives need to be mobilizing for a full-court press on the issue. Now. *