Union Tribune

December 11, 2003

Issa plan criticized for aiding SDG&E


WASHINGTON San Diego Gas & Electric has long been frustrated in its efforts to build the 500,000-volt Valley-Rainbow power line to meet San Diego's future electricity needs first by Californians who feared the plan could harm home values and businesses, then by state regulators who said the project was unnecessary.

But that didn't stop SDG&E.

Working through a San Diego-area congressman with important connections in Washington, the utility company recently boosted prospects for its power line by slipping legislation into an energy bill without proper public hearings or review, critics said.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, who got the provision into energy legislation that has stalled in the Senate, said his plan is designed to help a local water district, not SDG&E. And he insists the plan did get proper hearings.

"If there is information out there . . . that claims this provision, which received a committee hearing, was somehow not part of an open process, I would be interested in seeing it," Issa said.

SDG&E wanted to use private land in south Riverside County for a 500,000-volt power line. The 31-mile line would have linked power stations in Riverside and San Diego counties, provided power to 700,000 homes and, according to an SDG&E study, helped generate $7 billion in consumer spending in the San Diego area.

But in December 2002, the California Public Utilities Commission rejected the plan, which would have required condemning 100 homes, three schools and several small businesses, and would have disturbed historically significant Indian lands. The PUC said the $300 million plan was not necessary or cost-effective.

Issa, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, came up with another idea. In 2002, he wrote a bill that would open a corridor of federal lands in the Trabuco Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest, west of Interstate 15.

Issa's plan went nowhere last year. But this year, his bill was one of many placed in energy legislation that has passed the House, but stalled in the Senate in November. Congress plans to resume debate on the bill after its winter recess.

Issa, who since 1999 has received $57,000 in campaign contributions from electric utilities, said that because of the PUC's decision last December, his idea has nothing to do with SDG&E's plan for a power line. He said it is designed to help the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District develop a pumping station that would generate 600 megawatts of hydroelectric power.

While the route that Issa got into the energy bill is different from the route that the PUC rejected, both routes use the same interconnections. That means SDG&E could easily use the route for its hoped-for Valley-Rainbow power line, critics said.

In short, the Issa plan appears to be a way for SDG&E to make a stronger case when the utility again appeals to the PUC to connect the grids, as is expected, said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego, a ratepayer watchdog group.

"It is very broad language and removes the requirement that the land be protected from environmental degradation," Shames said. "This is very typical of this energy bill. Just about every utility has little . . . stocking stuffers in the energy bill, and it makes sense that this would be a very attractive Christmas gift for SDG&E."

An SDG&E spokesman said he could not speculate on whether the utility would rely on the Issa plan for Valley-Rainbow.

"It would be impossible to foresee what could happen here," said spokesman David Johnson.

Environmentalists fear the power line could ruin the natural character of the forest. They say Issa's plan would exempt power projects from the National Environmental Protection Act and other federal laws that call for studies and oversight.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the plan part of "one giant giveaway" to the oil, gas and power industries. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, complained that the Issa plan was "not contingent on any reviews." Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., objected that "the state didn't want it, and the local people didn't want it."

The House Resources Committee held a hearing on the larger package of bills that contained Issa's plan, said committee spokesman Matthew Streit. But Issa's bill never had a hearing of its own, said Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill.

"The notion that this was thoroughly reviewed by anybody is a little hard to defend," said one such staffer who asked not to be named. "There was never a hearing on . . . this specific bill. It overrides the (U.S.) Forest Service planning process, and we think the public process ought to continue as intended."