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Saturday, Jul. 14, 2001 at 11:01 AM
Medea Benjamin provides a brilliant, succinct critique of California's energy crisis; and makes a clarion call for public power. From the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action (SCADA) conference in Los Angeles on June 24, 2001.
error(Applause) Thank You.
How many of you are lucky enough to live within the Los Angeles DWP area? (applause)
Well, I don't know if you know how bad it is outside. Because you might know that a lot of our money is going to, that should be going to the schools and to hospitals, and transportation, and services, are just being sucked out of the state to the energy companies; but you're not seeing what's happening to the bills around the rest of the state. And I just want to give you one example, to see the contrast.
Yesterday I got a call from a teacher in my daughter's school, one of the few bilingual schools left in the state. And her name is Linda Petish (sp?), she called me up and she said, "Medea, I need help, I got behind in my bill. My bill went up 300 percent. And I make a salary as a teacher, I have three kids, and I got behind, and I got behind, and I got behind; and all of a sudden I had an eight hundred dollar bill. I put one hundred and fifty dollars down on it and thought that would be OK, a good faith gesture. And yesterday they came and they turned off my electricity. And they said I could not do any kind of payment plan, it had to be all at the same time for me to get my lights turned back on." She said, "Where is the bailout when it comes to individual families who are trying hard to be able to keep living in the state of California."
So there we have the Linda Petishes. And we are going to start on Wednesday a campaign for a moratorium on shutoffs; because nobody should have their electricity shut off and be forced to endure the blackouts (applause).
And on the other side of the spectrum: two days ago we had a visitor where I live, in San Francisco It was the CEO of Enron, Jeffrey Skilling (sp?) (audible booing). Yes, that is appropriate to boo. But in fact, this guy; OK, Enron, the largest energy marketer now in the world -- the last CEO said that there will be only ten energy conglomerates left in the world in ten years -- this is the company that has made unbelievable profits off of us in California, and the CEO himself, last year, if you count his salary and bonuses and stock options, made 142 million dollars. This is one person, $142,000,000. So I must say we gave him quite a wild reception when he dared -- one of the bad decisions he made in his career is to come to San Francisco to give a talk at the Commonwealth Club. First we tried to bring in a live pig that had a cape on it that said, "Just Another Enron Pig." (audience laughter.) When they wouldn't let the live pig in, we put on our pig masks and went around "oink, oink, oinking" everywhere he went. (more laughtter.) And I say I'm not responsible for the seven people who interrupted him during his talk and got thrown out, one of them throwing a pie in his face, saying, "you creamed us, now we creamed you." (raucous laughter, plus applause) I say I don't like the pie because you never know when it's gonna happen to you, being a Green Party member in a room of Democrats (laughter), you have to worry about things like pieing.
The issues are stark, this is the largest rip-off in the history of California. The most massive amount of money going from individuals to a handful of corporations -- that we have ever seen before. We went from paying, two years ago, seven billion dollars for our energy bill to twenty-seven billion dollars, and now we are going to pay fifty billion dollars in energy this year. Something is vastly, vastly wrong.
And if you look at who's to blame -- Why don't we have a little audience participation? You boo when you think I've said the name of somebody, or some entity, that is to blame. Let's start off with the easy one: the energy companies like Enron, Duke, Dynergy, Southern...(drowned out by a chorus of boos). Yes, they are obvious to blame. But, you know, it's hard to prove collusion; they are just playing by the games of the market, which I'm sure David Freeman (the new head of the California Public Utilities Commission, who will speak after Medea) will tell us about.
OK, the energy companies. Now, but there's another group of companies that say that they are impoverished; in fact, one of them is so poor that it just went into bankruptcy. And those are called the utility companies: we have PG&E, Southern California Edison (building crescendo of boos), San Diego Gas and Electric pleading poverty. Well look, give me a break. These are companies that have billions of dollars in assets; these are companies that went for de-regulation; these are companies that got billions of dollars for us to pay their stranded costs for their boondoggles like their nuclear energy plants; these are companies that then created, quote "legally" a "firewall" between the profitable part of their company calling it the "parent" -- swoosh, take the profits right out of here -- and the unprofitable part. And so when they started to go into debt, these poor companies; what happened to the parent and the billions of dollars that they took away? Did the parent come back and say, "Oh, I will help you out." No, they said, "this is the lesson here: you privatize profits and you socialize the costs." And that's what they're doing to us right now. (applause) And we say, "No," to those companies; they are not bankrupt, they have billions of dollars in assets. Let them get themselves out of debt; and we will not bail them out. (applause) We will not bail out Edison like the Governor is trying to do. We will not bail out San Diego Gas and Electric; we will not pay 2.3 times the value of their transmission grid. We either pay for what the real value is, or we don't pay for it at all. (more applause)
OK. Then let's see; this is an easy one. President Bush? (chorus of boos) OK, we're on the same page there. We know that he is doing this, he is marinated in oil (laughter), his whole administration is marinated in oil. He is saying that we need to drill in Alaska so that we can have electricity in California. We don't use oil for electricity in California. Give me a break. George Bush, what he wants to do is just make more and more money to pay back his buddies who put him in power. You know Enron alone gave one point five million dollars to Bush and the Republicans during this last election.
So we get down to, then, administrative bodies like the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commision). Did anybody here the expression, "we have been FERCed." (laughter) Well, we have been FERCed several times. And, in fact, when you look; unfortunately, it was President Clinton that appointed the bozo who is now the chairman -- yes, it was Bush who made him chairman, but this was Clinton's appointee. And this guy, I have never seen a more free market ideologue in my life. Unbelievable. In fact, you know, he will not say "price controls." They just put in a plan, they won't call it price controls; they call it "price mitigation," because he just can't roll off "price controls" off his lips. And when he was talking about the "price mitigation" plan they put into effect, he said, "well, we worked hard to come to a consensus, to all come together and get this plan into place; and I want to thank people, those who made it possible." And he thanks the commissioners, and he thanks congress, and he says, "but most of all I want to thank..." Who do you think he's going to thank? The President? Maybe get a couple of kudos, try to keep his job? No, he didn't thank the President. His mother? No, maybe he'd thank her, but no. He thanked the Market! He thanked the market, like the market is a person; you know, that needs to be thanked. This guy is an ideologue. So, they have been forced to put these price caps into place because we have risen up here in California -- and we say, "you damn better put those price caps into place. It's not good enough, it's not enough, we will push you even further." But it shows the power of our movement that we have forced them to do something. (applause)
Ok, we're still in the blame game. Now it gets a little dicey. Governor Gray Davis. (a healthy round of boos, though not overwhelming -- Medea laughs) A little division here. Governor Gray Davis, I'll give you my opinion. Let's see: well, my opinion, I don't know that David Freeman will like this one, I would sit outside the Governor's office with signs that said, "we can not let these companies go into bankruptcy," and his face on the television because this is what he said -- and we added a little thing at the bottom, "because they gave me over $500,000 for my campaign." (some laughter mixed with light applause.) He [Governor Davis] was very, very concerned for a very, very long time about saving these companies, and bailing them out. Why? He said in January during a State of the State Address, he said, "We can use the power of eminent domain to seize these plants." Well, Do It! Why didn't he do it? (applause) Seize a god damn plant and everything would've been different, right? We would've been in the driver's seat. And we should be in the driver's seat because we have thirty million consumers. We should be the ones in the driver's seat. If he had seized one of those plants everything would have changed for the better.
And then I will say the last in the blame game, and there would be more to go on, but this is my last. The Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento. (some boos) All went for deregulation. Greens didn't. (scattered, but raucous, applause -- Medea laughs) When we did a study we found 97% of them had taken money from the utility companies; and when we said to them, "give it back because you are voting on whether these companies are going to live or die, whether we're going to give them billions of dollars in our tax payer money or not." They said, "Oh Medea, how could you think that my vote would be bought?" (laughter) I said, "Well, the public doesn't like this kind of conflict; give it back so we can trust you on this on." Only ten out of one-hundred-and-twenty people in Sacramento gave the money back. (from the audience: "who gave it back?") The list is up on our website called, "powertothepeople.org" (http://www.powerto the people.org).
So, what I say, the last thing I fault them for, is that, the answer is right in front of their faces. If they would walk outside of Sacramento and see that there's something called the Sacramento Municipal Utility District -- that used to run by our good friend right here, David Freeman -- or, if they came to Los Angeles and saw, here's the largest city in this whole State that is not suffereing by the crsis. What are the two things that those two places have in common? (the audience response includes, "David Freeman") Not David Freeman; yes, (Medea begins laughing) they have that in common as well (Medea laughs along with the audience). What else do they have in common? (more laughter) Public power. Public power. Let's say it: (audience joins in) "Public power." It sounds nice, doesn't it? It sounds real damn nice, given what we've seen of these companies. And I would say, if the politicians had the sense to get out and see that public power is not a wild-eyed radical idea -- in fact, David Freeman does not look like a wild-eyed radical to me -- that it exists in over two-thousand cities around the [country], the whole state of Nebraska has public power, we have public power in forty-seven cities here in California. It has proven itself to be better, even by market mechanisms; with lower rates, with better conservation plans, better renewable energy plans.
We want to say to the politicians, to the companies: we want public power here in the state of California; and the reason we want it is because we want power that is affordable, and we don't think that the private companies can give it to us, we want power that is clean, and we know the companies have not been able to give us clean power. We're going to spend 50 billion dollars this year, mostly on fossil fuels. Let's spend billions of dollars to change, this century, and bring us into the age of renewable, clean energy. (building applause) Let's put it in wind, let's put it in solar; and we can do it. (extended applause) And so I say that the reason that we want affordable clean power is very clear. And the only way we're going to get that is through public power. Thank you. (resounding applause).
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