Talk about trial by fire, or in this case, electric shock.
Two freshman state legislators from L.A., neither of whom even contemplated having to deal with electricity deregulation when they were campaigning last year, are now in the hot seat. They suddenly find themselves on an 18-member panel formed last week to draft solutions to the state's energy crisis.
Long Beach Democrat Jenny Oropeza and Granada Hills Republican Keith Richman were "drafted" last week by Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, to sit on the new Assembly Committee on Energy Costs and Availability. Hertzberg named veteran Los Angeles Democrat Roderick Wright, who has been the chair of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, as chair of the crisis committee.
Thanks in large part to term limits, fully one-third of the members of the committee are freshman legislators who took their oath of office just one month ago. In past sessions, freshman legislators at this stage were still finding out where the rest rooms and elevators are in the state Capitol. But with six-year term limits and so many new faces, there's little time these days for such luxuries.
As a result, the six neophytes on the Energy Costs and Availability committee are being thrust into the most volatile and complicated crisis the state has seen in at least 25 years: the badly malfunctioning deregulated energy markets. Soaring wholesale electricity and natural gas costs and frequent shortages have pushed California to the brink of rolling blackouts while the state's two largest investor-owned utilities, unable to recoup their costs, have teetered on the edge of insolvency.
Yet neither Oropeza nor Richman claim to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the unexpected crisis they now must grapple with.
"Maybe I'm nuts, but I don't feel overwhelmed," Oropeza said. "Sure, it's a bit daunting, but it's also a great opportunity to be part of the solution and I relish the challenge."
Oropeza said that while this issue didn't come up during her primary campaign a year ago, once the Legislature convened last month, she actually put her name in for a seat on the Utilities and Commerce Committee. When she wasn't named to that committee, she figured she might escape dealing with the crisis at least until it came before the full Assembly.
Now, though, Oropeza finds herself taking a crash course in the economics of energy markets and the technical minutiae of electricity generation.
"There's really no time to learn; you have to learn and jump in with solutions at the same time," she said.
Oropeza is not a complete stranger to the issue, though. She was a member of the Long Beach City Council when that body decided two years ago to reject switching its energy supplier from Southern California Edison to either the L.A. Department of Water & Power or creating its own municipal utility.
When asked whether in retrospect it might have been better for Long Beach to dump Edison, Oropeza defended the council's decision.
"We made a good deal with Edison at the time we made it two years ago. I wouldn't have done anything differently," she said.
Richman, the Legislature's only practicing physician, never intended to deal with the energy crisis when he campaigned for his seat last year. He was set to take on the health maintenance organizations in yet another round in the war over health care reform.
But he has swiftly shifted gears and is now brimming with proposals to tackle with the energy crisis.
"Dealing with complicated problems is why I ran for office," Richman said. "I spent a fair amount of time over the last couple months studying the issue and I have a reasonable amount of financial background that I gained running a business."
Richman said he wants the state to exercise its authority to help bring 20,000 megawatts of power on line in the next five years, including 3,000 to 4,000 megawatts in the next nine months. These ambitious goals could be reached, he said, by facilitating the retrofits of older power plants and by shortening or lifting environmental reviews. He also wants the state to kick in money to buy land for new plants, a move also proposed by Gov. Gray Davis in his State of the State speech.
"This is no different than what we faced in the Northridge earthquake," he said. "The 10 Freeway went down and the 118 Freeway went down. There was an all-out effort to get those freeways back on line. Those were aggressive public works projects to address an immediate crisis, and we now have an immediate crisis that can only really be answered by generating more power."
Richman said he believes at least 20 to 40 new power plants will have to be constructed over the next five years to solve the crisis. (Nine have already been approved and are at various stages of construction, while 14 more are currently under review.)
Oropeza was a little more vague about potential solutions, saying she is still fleshing out her ideas. She said that while new power plants are needed, attention must also be given to the demand side, including conservation efforts.
"There are a couple aspects we're working on right now over lunch," she said, referring to the study session lunch with her colleague. "I'll have a much better sense of what our proposals will be in about a week or two."
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