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California Permit Processes Broken, Officials Say

California's power plant and transmission power line permitting processes are broken, regulators from the California Energy Commission (CEC) and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) said last week.

Officials told a Law Seminars International Conference, "Energy in California," last Monday in San Francisco that there are corrective initiatives under way at both state commissions, but ultimately the state legislature will have to weigh in, too.

While touting energy efficiency as a leading part of the solution, CEC Commissioner Julia Levin said there is still the need for new generation and transmission infrastructure, and the permitting processes for both need fixing. "In a broader sense there are a number of initiatives -- transmission is one of them -- and we are working much more closely with the CPUC, as well as the state Department of Fish and Game, to create if not actually one-stop shopping, at least something closer to one process," Levin said.

"Having said all that, I think there are legislative initiatives that will be required as well."

In his criticism of the system and for the state fostering too much "NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard)-ism," CPUC Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon said there was a legislative proposal this year that would have required a power purchase agreement for generation developers before they could begin the regulatory process.

"Eliminating the barriers to infrastructure deployment is one of my major personal areas of focus," Simon said. "How did a nation that wrote folk songs about and celebrated infrastructure development out of the 1930s and the Roosevelt administration New Deal become this NIMBY nation?" he asked rhetorically. "We use our NIMBYism at times to further environmental racism and injustice. What happened culturally? We have to examine this in California, and I think other states will too. Otherwise, we won't achieve the issues we are here to discuss unless we change our attitude about infrastructure."

Simon indicated that he was probably even more critical of the state's infrastructure permitting than his colleague at the CEC, Levin, noting that "we in California need to get our house together if we are to attract [the new renewable] projects and the investor dollars that we need." He emphasized that the state cannot continue to "mire investor dollars in perpetuity by way of our permitting and approval process."

As an example of how the new infrastructure process should work, Simon, who is the CPUC's leading natural gas expert, cited the handling so far of El Paso Natural Gas Co.'s proposed new Ruby interstate pipeline to bring added Rockies supplies to the West Coast. "For people on law school faculties or in the oil/gas departments of law firms, this is a case where all of the parties have done a remarkable job in their presentations to me and the [CPUC] administrative law judge," he said. "It has really been an exciting case that is having an enormous impact on the gas in the western region of North America. Having an anchor shipper [Pacific Gas and Electric Co.] at a set price makes a big difference, and our Division of Ratepayer Advocates is onboard with this infrastructure project."

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