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Op-Ed: Big Oil & Water | Oil Watchdog

Op-Ed: Big Oil & Water

Thu, May 15, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Op-Ed: Big Oil & Water

    The following Op-Ed Commentary by Consumer Watchdog’s John M. Simpson,
    was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday, May 15, 2008:

    They say oil and water don’t mix. Maybe that’s why Chevron
    is so tone-deaf in its dealings with a small California town that
    depends on the oil company for its water. Chevron, which inherited a
    tiny water agency serving the Central Coast hamlet of Casmalia in a
    merger, has asked to raise rates to a level that residents say
    threatens the very existence of their community.

    Chevron just posted record first-quarter profits of $5.17 billion on
    top of a record profit of $18.7 billion in 2007. Now the Chevron-owned
    local water company wants to raise water rates by 138 percent for its
    52 residential customers in Casmalia.

    The oil giant has told the Calilfornia Public Utilities Commission
    that it deserves a “reasonable rate of return” on its midget water
    company. Mainly, most residents suspect, Chevron wants out of the water
    business.

    The Public Utilities Commission staff proposes a rate increase of
    89.7 percent and a “9.01 percent rate of return” for the water company.
    A resolution to enact that increase is on the PUC’s agenda for today’s
    meeting.

    Even at the lower PUC rate proposal, town officials say the increase
    will kill their community. “If this increase is granted,” wrote Bill
    Ostini, president of the Casmalia Community Services District, “it will
    signal the beginning of the end for us.”

    Casmalia is 1.5 miles north of Vandenberg Air Force base. In the
    early 1900s, the population was 1,500. It’s since dwindled to around
    200, and the town is perhaps best known for the Hitching Post
    Restaurant. From 1973 to 1989 the notorious Casmalia Resources
    Hazardous Waste Facility operated a mile north of town. During the time
    it was in business, the toxic dump received more than 4 billion pounds
    of waste from around the Golden State. Fumes regularly blew into town
    and sickened residents.

    Those days are over. Now the site is the target of an EPA Superfund
    cleanup, and Chevron is involved as a member of the Casmalia Steering
    Committee.

    Casmalia gets its water from the Casmite Water Corp., owned by
    Chevron. Casmite has provided Casmalia’s water since the 1940s, when it
    had oil operations in the area. Unocal acquired Casmite in 1953, and
    then Chevron swallowed up Unocal in 2005.

    At a PUC hearing, company officials said that before 2005 the
    company was not collecting enough fees to cover its costs. The execs
    maintain that because the water company is under PUC jurisdiction, they
    are required to recover costs through the rate structure.

    They say annual revenue received from 52 residential customers must
    rise from the current $72,700 to $173,000. That $100,000 increase is
    huge to residents with a median household income that town officials
    peg at around $30,000.

    The current average household monthly water bill is $115. Under the
    Chevron increase it would be $272. The 89.7 percent increase before the
    PUC would bring the average to $217. Customers of other water systems
    in Santa Barbara County pay $40 to $60 a month for similar amounts of
    water.

    Certainly there has to be a sensible way Chevron can leave without
    killing the community. Chevron needs to harness some of the vaunted
    “human energy” touted in its multimillion dollar ad campaigns and solve
    this.

    Here’s one possible way: Before leaving, Chevron should pay whatever
    is necessary to get the water system in shape and do whatever else is
    needed so it can be merged with a viable utility, one that’s actually
    in the water business. Chevron should also set up a trust fund to help
    subsidize the system for several years.

    There is precedent for this. When Atlantic Richfield faced a similar
    situation in New Cuyama back in 1977, it turned over the water system
    and $1 million to the Cuyama Community Services District.

    Merged into a larger water company, Casmalia’s rates could be spread over a reasonable customer base.

    Ruining a little town to get out of a business that it wants to shed
    seems beneath a company that has profited so handsomely from California
    motorists, including those who live in Casmalia.
    ————–

    John M. Simpson is a consumer advocate with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Consumer Watchdog. E-mail forum@sfchronicle.com.

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