Letters to the Editor

Letters from April 11, 2001

Power Grab

A little MUD slinging: Gee, thanks for doing a cover story on public power (Peter Byrne's "Delusions of Power," April 4). I've been writing about this issue now for almost 20 years, and none of the other news media in town have ever paid any attention. Glad to have you on board.

Like a lot of newcomers to this issue, you made a few mistakes. I'll stick to the big ones, and I'll start with the Raker Act, since it's one of my favorite topics of all time.

Peter Byrne talked to all sorts of people who claim to be experts, but he obviously didn't do much of his own research, because he missed the essential point: The Raker Act was all about public power. If it weren't for a requirement that San Francisco operate a public power agency, there would have been no Raker Act, and Congress would never have allowed the city to build a dam in Yosemite National Park.

To summarize briefly: In the early part of this century, the battle over who would control the nation's electric power system was a very big deal. A lot of people (including some influential political leaders) believed that private power companies were a huge threat to consumers and to democracy in general, and fought furiously to keep the generation and sale of electricity under public control (Rudolph and Ridley's Power Struggle: The 100 Years War Over Electricityis an excellent resource on this bit of almost-forgotten history).

The Raker Act was a compromise between environmentalists (who didn't want the dam) and public power advocates (who saw it as a way to ensure that private power companies -- specifically PG&E -- would never get control of the power market in San Francisco, the largest and fastest-growing city in Northern California).

The act itself is a long and complicated piece of legislation, and like a lot of complex bills written almost 90 years ago, the actual language is subject to plenty of interpretation (and misinterpretation). But the intent of Congress at the time is abundantly clear from the Congressional Record. The backers of the bill repeatedly said that they were willing to hand over a precious federal resource to San Francisco only on the condition that it be used to keep private power -- specifically, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. -- out of the key regional market.

That's exactly what the U.S. Supreme Court found in 1940. As Justice Hugo Black wrote, "Congress early intended to require -- as a condition of its grant -- sale and distribution of Hetch-Hetchy power exclusively by San Francisco and municipal agencies directly to consumers in the belief that consumers would thus be afforded power at cheap rates in competition with private power companies, particularly Pacific Gas & Electric Company." (The cite is U.S. v. San Francisco, 310 US 16. You could look it up: This information is all easily available on the Web. There are links at sfbg.com.)

Of course, as PG&E officials themselves admit, the company has fought (brilliantly) to obscure this history and to confuse the legal and political issues over the years, because preventing San Francisco from enforcing the Raker Act was (and perhaps still is) essential to the company's survival as a large and profitable utility. Byrne shouldn't feel too bad -- lots of other journalists have been caught up in this sophisticated web of lies.

But let's get back to the present. Rolling blackouts are turning California into a Third World country. Doesn't it make sense to look into public power as an alternative?

Which brings us to the MUD: For quite some time, a few hardy folks (including the publisher of the Bay Guardian, who is, and should be, proud of his efforts) have been working against all political odds to get San Francisco out from under PG&E's thumb. Every attempt to get anything from City Hall on this issue has been quickly and often brutally rebuffed. (That shouldn't surprise Peter Byrne, who knows how politics works in this town.) Finally, the public power crew decided last year to attempt to create a municipal utility district, which would be an independent agency, not under the control of the mayor -- and thus might have some prayer of breaking the PG&E political axis.

The MUD that Byrne and SF Weekly so fear would not instantly take over PG&E's system. Personally, I wish it would, since I've studied this issue at extraordinary length, and I'm utterly convinced that public power would lead to cheaper rates and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for city services. But that's not politically or legally feasible. In fact, there's no guarantee that the MUD would get San Francisco into the power business at all.

The prospect that terrifies you folks amounts to a group of five independently elected representatives conducting studies, holding public hearings, and maybe going through yet another election to ask voters to approve a plan, all of which might lead to the establishment of the public power agency that Congress wanted back in 1913 -- and the end of PG&E's high rates and rolling blackouts. Is that such a bad idea?

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