San Diego Union-Tribune

April 18, 2001

Mineta doubtful energy-price caps would ease crisis
    Fellow Democrats dispute his view


WASHINGTON -- Norman Mineta, the U.S. transportation secretary whose California ties give the state a potentially powerful voice in the Bush administration, said yesterday that he personally does not see how price controls would help the state's energy crisis.

Despite his strong relationships with California Democrats who believe such controls might ease the power shortages and rolling blackouts that have plagued their state, Mineta appeared yesterday to be in lockstep with Bush's firm position against price caps.

"It seems to me that if you cap market prices, you don't do anything to consumption -- that consumption will go up," Mineta told reporters at a luncheon in Washington. "And at this time, it seems to me one of the things we don't want to see happening is an increase in consumption. So it doesn't seem, from a policy perspective, the way to go."

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who has written a bill imposing temporary caps on wholesale electricity prices, said she was "surprised that Secretary Mineta would take the administration's doctrinaire point of view without first talking to me about the importance of this issue . . . "

Huge increases in wholesale power prices in California -- which state utilities were not allowed to pass along to consumers -- have driven one utility into bankruptcy, and another to the brink of it.

Mineta, 69, is a former California congressman and the only Democrat in Bush's Cabinet. He sits on a Bush-appointed task force that is creating a new national energy policy. If there were any high-level person who could influence Bush on behalf of California Democrats, who support price caps, it probably would be Mineta.

Mineta refused to discuss the details of the energy group's discussions -- saying Vice President Dick Cheney, who leads the task force, insisted on secrecy until the group reports to the president.

Last month, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the Bush administration would continue to oppose power price controls in the West, adding that blackouts in California appeared "inevitable" this summer. Though Abraham promised help for the state, he insisted that price controls would only worsen power shortages in the region.

Several bills by California lawmakers would force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to impose price controls, or would give the energy secretary such authority.

Michael Shames, executive director of the San Diego-based Utility Consumers' Action Network, said Mineta's comment "displays a high degree of ignorance about what the state of California is doing."

"It's distressing to see (a) Californian in the Bush administration so uninformed about . . . how price caps can be one of many elements in a comprehensive fix to the energy crisis in the Western United States, not just California," Shames said.

Mineta, who was President Clinton's commerce secretary, said his position on market forces has not changed from the days when he represented the Silicon Valley area in Congress for 21 years.