That was Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez today at an event in downtown Los Angeles, in front of a Chevron station (that was selling gas for a low low $3.49, I think the advance man could’ve found stations 30-40 cents higher without too much trouble), as he announced with Assemblymen Mike Davis, Mike Feuer and Mike Eng a series of bills to combat rising gas prices and the artificial depression of refinery supply. The bills will seek to oversee refinery maintenance, expand regulatory authority, and deal with the “hot fuel” issue. The Speaker said that “During the electricity crisis a few years ago, California adopted similar measures to keep energy companies from using these convenient (refinery) shutdowns to amp up their profits, and today we’re going to make sure oil companies can’t use Enron-like tactics on California consumers.”
This is an object lesson in why now was the exact wrong time for the CDP to accept $50,000 from the prime progenitor of those Enron-style tactics. And it actually came up in the press conference. A full report on the flip, with audio to come.
Nunez referenced a Wall Street Journal article (behind the wall, sadly) that detailed how refineries are cashing in on high gas prices by artificially lowering their supply through various methods, particularly shutdowns. The three bills work out this way:
1) new oversight committee: Nunez and Eng’s bill would create the California Petroleum Refinery Standards Committee, made up of the Attorney General, the State Controller and a couple political appointees, which would develop standards for maintenance and operations at California refineries, would look into shutdowns and would increase mandatory reporting from oil companies regarding them, would take audits and inspections, and would ensure compliance. Penalties for not complying to these standards, would be “very stiff” and would be considered felonies, not misdemeanors.
2) “Hot fuels”: temperature varies in fuel, and it impacts the weight of gasoline, which since it’s sold by the gallon impacts the price. The suspicion is that oil companies are manipulating temperature variations to give the consumer less for its money. Assemblyman Mike Davis’ bill would seek a comprehensive study, cost-benefit analysis, and recommendations on what the national standard for gasoline temperature should be. Right now it’s 60 degrees; the concern is that the number should be higher.
3) Petroleum Industry Information Reporting Act: oil companies are not releasing enough data to determine properly the efficacy of inventory levels and profit margins. Assemblyman Mike Feuer’s bill would mandate monthly financial reports on oil supply, demand, and price issues. It would also allow that information to be shared with the Attorney General and the Board of Equalization.
These appear to be decent bills that correctly address the issue of artificial refinery supply. However, in the question-and-answer session that followed, there was an example of why it is not smart to play both sides of this fence.
The fact that the backdrop of the press conference was a Chevron statement is telling; after all, they own 25% of the refineries in the state, and they are getting rich off the high gas prices being made by their actions at those refineries. The VERY FIRST QUESTION offered to Speaker Nunez was about his trip to South America paid for in part by Chevron. Nunez replied that the trip was “insignificant,” that the trip was taken to learn more about alternative fuels in South America, that he stands for issues that are important to Democrats, and that he resented any attempt to question his ethics. And right after the presser was over, during a sort of press gaggle, he told the radio reporter who asked that question that is was either a “cheap shot” or a “chicken shit” question (I wasn’t quite close enough to fully make it out). The reporter replied that the information was out there and she was just giving the Speaker a chance to respond.
Clearly that’s a fair question. And clearly it’s fair to ask whether, at a time where the Speaker of the Assembly is accusing Chevron of market manipulation and of engaging in “Enron-like tactics,” it’s the best time for the CDP to be taking a $50,000 contribution from that same corporation. Now more than ever, the message should be united, and the perception here is quite confusing, and more hurtful than the money is helpful. I appreciate these efforts to stop market manipulation, but I do not appreciate giving the opposition another arrow in their quiver through the appearance of impropriety of this donation. I renew and strengthen my call for the Party to return the money and work in more innovative ways to fundraise and grow the party.