Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Racial Justice | Tracking COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Blackouts Return To California Fire Zones

Cover image for podcast episode

Preemptive power outages return to California for the second time this month; Governor Gavin Newsom asks for an investigation into high gas prices; and critics accuse the San Diego City Council of election shopping in its move to place the hotel tax vote on the March primary ballot.

Speaker 1: 00:01 The winds ramp up and the lights go out. SDG and E cuts power to thousands. As San Diego and California try to prevent wildfires. California is paying more for gas than anywhere else by a lot. Now the state is looking into whether major brands are fixing prices, and is it a case of election shopping? San Diego city council defends its push to move up the convention center. Vote. I'm Mark Sauer. The KPBS round table starts now.

Speaker 2: 00:36 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 00:39 welcome to our discussion to the week's top stories. I'm Mark Sauer and joining me at the KPBS round table today. Rob career, who writes about weather and climate for the San Diego union Tribune, KPBS science and technology reporter Shelina, a Lani Rob Nikolsky energy reporter for the union Tribune and Laurie Weisberg, who covers tourism and marketing for the union Tribune. Well, we turn first a Raymond Chandler, the opening of his 1938 short story, red wind. There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump in your skin. Itch on nights like that. Every Booz party ends in a fight. Meek little Housewives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands next. Anything can happen and wildfires can happen. Santa Ana winds have caused unthinkable destruction in California since 1938 they're driving fires North and South today with the Saturday fire now near Ramona. Scores of structures destroyed in Geyserville in Sonoma County, many thousands of [inaudible], several other camp in several other California communities plus hundreds of thousands who've had power disruptions. Well that's a lot going on here. And Robert reminds us specifically what these winds are and how they occur.

Speaker 3: 01:56 Are you going to make me break out the meteorology one Oh one but there you go. Um, just the time of year where we get to high pressure that occurs over the great basin. And so the basic rule of meteorology, the air is gonna move from high pressure to low pressure. And when we've got a Santa Ana, we've got relatively low pressure over Southern California or nearby. So now you've got air on the move from the great basin towards Southern California and that air starts off. It's not that all that hot over the great basin, but as it comes towards us, it hits the mountains and as it goes down, the slow, it warms up, it gets compressed. And for every thousand feet of elevation that it sinks, it gains five degrees in temperature. Why are we get so hot here? This exactly. And what the meteorologist used to call a true San Ana would was, is when it gets to the coast, that's when it's actually the hottest. So like yesterday, San Diego is 94 and Borrego Springs is only 90. So in addition to that, when a wind gets funneled through canyons, it gets accelerated and whens or even blowing even faster. And that's when you hear forecasters talk about below the canyons where the winds are strongest and that's what it is. And when the winds are coming out of the East like they were tonight or last night, that's when San Diego gets hit the hardest.

Speaker 1: 03:09 And of course, red flag, a warning today through later today. Uh, we've had a fire as I mentioned in the open up and down the state. We've had some, some uh, some fires, a lot of evacuations, but this event isn't nearly as bad or at least it's prolonged as the ones we had an Oh three and Oh seven, and when we had those terrible destructive fires in San Diego County.

Speaker 3: 03:28 That's right. Um, I'll start you with an anecdote here. So last night and I got home the trees, the branches were moving empty trash cans, blown over some leaves in the pool and everything, but it wasn't anything horrible. In 2007, those winds were howling and it sounded like a wounded animal enough unlike anything I've heard or before sense. But that's just anecdote. Now the, the, the forest service and the fire people have come up with a way to rate these Santa Ana's, the Santa Ana wildfire index, a threat index. And this one, believe it or not, is only rated as moderate and it is capable of spreading fires rapidly and they would be hard to stop. But if we ever got up to the, to the extreme category, that's when the winds are explosive and the fires are spreading explosively and the fires next to impossible to stop.

Speaker 1: 04:23 And of course we've seen that here recently, just the last few years there and talked about that on the show throughout California

Speaker 3: 04:28 what was going on in 2007 but this time not, which is not to say this isn't a dangerous situation and the fires if they do get started aren't or they're going to spread rapidly

Speaker 1: 04:38 and we just as bad as it was then in a week to three weeks from now, right on through until the rain start. We could have this really through the winter. Right,

Speaker 3: 04:45 right. In fact, we've got another Santa Ana probably not going to be as hot coming Sunday, Monday and then perhaps another one coming Halloween.

Speaker 1: 04:53 Okay, well Shalina KPBS this week we covered a what utilities like SDG and E learned from the big fires and years pass in these planned power outages. We've heard a lot about that in the last couple of weeks in the news here. Well, why are they done and who's been affected this week in San Diego County?

Speaker 4: 05:09 Yeah. The reason why they're done is pretty simple. Uh, there's lots of electricity flowing through power lines and in the fires as you mentioned, the devastating fires that we had in the past. They have been connected to STG and these power lines next to the brush causing sparks causing the fires. So, um, since 2013, STG has had this, you know, power safety shutoff plan to prevent these fires from occurring. And uh, this week it's been impacting folks in East County areas and uh, spreading all the way closer to San Diego, the San Diego proper. Um, and places like Poway and Ramona,

Speaker 1: 05:46 and we're going to get some local reaction here in a minute. But, um, this has been really upsetting for people in Northern California where they're, of course, PG and E is shutting off this power for the same reason up. But it was many more a homes involved. I mean, over a million people, maybe 2 million people. It's as we've worked through these st Anna's in the last 10 days, a lot of complaints,

Speaker 4: 06:07 lots of complaints. There was over a million people. And the reason for that, uh, I would, you know, conjecture is that this is relatively new for PGNE. They're a first, or they say their first major power safety shutoff happened in June this year. As CJ has been doing this since 2013. It's kind of put in place a plan to notify people. It has operations in place and PGNE kind of did it at the last minute,

Speaker 1: 06:32 whether in the mission they didn't do it very well.

Speaker 4: 06:34 Yeah. And didn't notify a lot of people. Um, but I will say, and maybe Rob you could speak to this, uh, PGNE is a lot bigger than SDG and E

Speaker 5: 06:42 yeah. They've got a much larger service territory. And also the, uh, the geography is different in Northern California and in Southern California we don't have as many trees, a lot more. Yeah. A lot more forest. And a lot of those forests have not been cleared of, of, uh, of, uh, of fuels, so to speak. And so yeah, it's, it's a, it's a bigger, um, job for PGT and also PG&E has just as you said, uh, PGNE hasn't been as advanced as STG and he has cause after those 2007 wildfires that Rob mentioned, uh, San Diego gas and electric has spent one point $5 billion in improvements and other measurements are other measures to try to reduce and prevent wildfires.

Speaker 1: 07:27 Still, we've had our complaints here. That's a BA or a are a sound bite here. Want to hear from 'em somebody we interviewed out the library market in the liquor store near Boulevard here. This would be a shop owner. Same Matthew. Let's hear him.

Speaker 6: 07:41 I don't know why he's here. I have no idea. We'll keep calling and everybody say something else to some more safety for windy and a little smile from here. Listen, mile. Uh, they have on power on the same one and same area. I don't know why as the only this area, I have no idea.

Speaker 5: 08:02 All right, so, and this, it's, it's confusing to a lot of people. Maybe I'm not right next to a worst and dry area, but it has to do with the grid and where this goes. And it gets complicated. Yeah, it does. And also you might be in an area where there doesn't seem to be any kind of win, but you might be in an area where the lines might extend to an area that is windy and does have a chance for a, you know, fire ignition.

Speaker 7: 08:28 Well, it just seems, and I know you and I were talking about this yesterday, that, um, there is a lot of comparison between SDG knee and [inaudible] teaching, but, but it seems like there's, they're sort of damned if they do and damned if they don't. I mean, if they were to be less aggressive and doing these power shutoff since fire happens and they didn't do it, there'll be criticized for that. It seems like it's almost a no win situation for them in this sort of court of public opinion. And PGNE was

Speaker 5: 08:56 criticized exactly for that because I think, I believe it was the campfire or the Butte fire last year, 80 people killed. And, um, uh, PGNE had a chance, had the opportunity to uh, shut off the power and they decided not to and they got criticized heavily for that.

Speaker 1: 09:13 And Robert, I wanted to get to before we leave this segment, uh, we mentioned of course the uh, the power shutoffs and, and then the big deal. But since the Oh three and the Oh seven fire, it's been a lot of other improvements down here. SDG uni with the help of a lot of academic folks have done weather stations in the back country, explained some of the things they'd done better communications.

Speaker 3: 09:30 The STG probably has the most elaborate, sophisticated, uh, back-country weather monitoring network probably in the world. And they've got all kinds of weather stations out there. They've got cameras and they can be incredibly proactive and they know what's happening and they can relay out to other people that are going to be affected by it. So that's a huge difference because they, I mean, they can know beforehand what's, you know, what's about to happen.

Speaker 1: 09:58 All right, well we're out of time on this segment, but we'll keep our fingers crossed here as we go forward and pray for the rains coming here maybe after Halloween. Who knows? Well, we're gonna move on. California has always been a trendsetter. We've long been a national leader in new entertainment, the internet revolution, fine wine and name a few. California also has the dubious distinction of high gas prices, much higher than what's seen it pumps across the lower 48. So, uh, Rob start with, um, why we're, uh, paying more the fees and it's, uh, taxes, taxes. It's real complicated, isn't it? Let's dive into this.

Speaker 5: 10:31 Will you take a look at it? Uh, the right off the bat, when you pull into a gas station and you pump a gallon of gas, you're paying about 80 cents per gallon just on taxes and fees. 18 cents of that is a federal gas tax. The rest of that is California, um, uh, taxes and fees. And then since I wrote that story a couple of days ago, I've had a couple of readers come in and say that it's, there's even more than that as well. You've got the low carbon fuel standard fee, which comes to three S three, uh, 3.7 cents a gallon. And then the cap and trade program, it goes to 11 cents a gallon. So when we add all that up, you're almost to a dollar a jerk right off the bat.

Speaker 1: 11:14 So I mean that is part of it, but that's not the whole story here. We'd been above four bucks a gallon at most stations here lately. A fewer are cheaper, but it gets people wondering about our mystery gasoline surcharge. Tell us who coined that phrase and what does it mean? That's

Speaker 5: 11:29 from Severn Bornstein, who is a professor at UC, at UC Berkeley, and he's been noticing and other people have been as well. What happened was back in 2015, there was a explosion at the Torrance refinery with an Exxon Mobil refinery and uh, in the LA area. And B, that refinery got knocked offline and prices up supply and demand back then. Yeah, exactly. Prices went up about 15 30 cents. But what's interesting is since 2015 after the refinery got back online, after more production came and they were able to get, uh, other, uh, access to oil and gasoline, that that price differential has never really quite gone away. And that's something that dr Bornstein was able to notice was that we were able to see these fluctuations prior to February, 2015 sometimes they went below average, sometimes they went above average on price, but since then the price has, the fluctuation has only been in the positive, not in the negative.

Speaker 5: 12:36 And so that's the big question is why, why has that happened? And the big question politicians like governor Gavin Newsome, as I said at the outset, he says something nefarious might be it a foot here. And what's he trying to do about it? Well, he wants the attorney general of the Airbus viscera to launch an investigation into that. Um, the California energy commission send a report to governor Newsome last week. And in the report they talked about this mystery gas surcharge and one of the things that they pointed to was how according to the, to the energy commission, they figured it's, it's about 30 cents a gallon that's unaccounted for. And they point the finger mostly at branded gasoline stations to shell Exxon, the big names [inaudible] 76 those places as opposed to the small independent stations. So they noticed that the into branded stations, they're charging a lot more than at the independent stations.

Speaker 5: 13:33 Now, is there something nefarious going on there? Perhaps, but perhaps not Laura, it seems like a, and me reading your story, it seemed like maybe we the consumers out of convenience or laziness or whatever. Maybe we're part of the problem because we're giving the branded stations our business instead of seeking out independence. Yes. Because even though the energy commission was very critical of the gasoline companies, in fairness to them, they also mentioned in this report how there are other studies that show that California gasoline consumers are more brand loyal than they are in other States. Which is odd. It is odd. Everything's so expensive. Right. But then I talked to a, uh, a fuel expert out of Irvine, Dave Hackett. And one of the things that he brought up, and it's Mike, maybe this is sort of explains the non nefarious explanation for this is that their studies show that there are twice as many, uh, potential consumers, gasoline, consumers as there are, uh, gasoline stations, gas stations, and there are in other parts.

Speaker 5: 14:42 So again, supply and demand, again, this is a supply and demand thing. And so it could be a whole bunch of these combinations of things. It could be some price manipulation, but could also just be the way the a, the market is, is structured here in California. I'm wondering how much they've studied the psychology of Californians because they realize that, you know, the average California's got a busy life, maybe, maybe busier than other places, maybe not, but many people are not going to spend an extra two 50 if they're gonna save 10 minutes. Right. You know, so, yeah. And the story that I wrote earlier this, this week we sent one of our reporters out just to downtown. And even within a small three block radius, there was a wide differential in, in gas prices. And there were people going to the more expensive station. And our reporter, Bradley fixe ax asked one of the, uh, one of the people filling up search. She goes, well, it's more convenient for me. Some people have only a, a Chevron card for example. And they used that. So we'll see what happens.

Speaker 1: 15:44 No, uh, getting back to Newsome angry a state legislators, um, they're uh, trying to see if the big brand companies are squeezing the marketing and squeezing out independence and all of that. What are the big brands have to say about this? What's their response?

Speaker 5: 15:58 Not a whole lot. Uh, in fact, the, um, the energy commission, another part of their study took a look at the possibility that maybe people are buying the more expensive gas links. They're thinking that, Oh, the more expensive gasoline does give me a better [inaudible]. It's a better fuel. But from the, uh, energy commission's analysis, they took a look at and talk to the people at the California air resources board. They couldn't tell the people at the ARB. They really couldn't tell much difference between the folk called high quality brands and just the regular brand that you, that you'd be able to find and get into your point. They asked the gas companies, well please give us some data. And the gas companies never responded

Speaker 1: 16:45 almost at a time when this segment is four bucks for 15 enough to get people out of their cars and under public transit or bicycles or drive less or you've got to get the five bucks, six bucks. Do we know what the tipping point is? Quickly, that's the question for SANDAG. I'll find [inaudible] and we'll, we'll come back on the show and we'll talk about that one very soon. Well anyway, we all hope the prices come down at some point here or get electric cars. Some of us have, well I'm going to move on next year. We have two big elections, the California primary and March and the general election in November, but they are different animals. And this week the majority of San Diego city council members supported putting the long debated hotel tax hike issue before voters in March. And Lori started with this tax. So what's it going to do if it's a past and we gotta have a super majority, right? Two thirds.

Speaker 7: 17:29 Right. And that's, that's a really high bar. Yeah. Yeah. So they may have a very strong coalition behind them. Some say the strongest coalition ever for a tax hike, but they do have that super majority, um, which is, uh, rarely, rarely achieved in San Diego. So basically it would raise the effect of hotel tax to much as 15.75% for the hotels closest to downtown. And it would raise money for three key things, uh, convention center expansion, which they'd been trying to get from more than a decade. Um, homeless services and housing and repair to a lesser extent repair roads. Um, so those three things that would raise billions of dollars over a 42 year

Speaker 1: 18:10 and break that down a little more for us. Um, first of all, who the pays for is mostly got a tax on tourists. Yes.

Speaker 7: 18:17 Yeah. So it's about 3.5 billion for the convention center. That 1.8 billion for the, um, for the homeless and then, uh, about half a million for the revenue.

Speaker 1: 18:27 And that would be annually raised for those

Speaker 7: 18:31 course of 42 years. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 18:33 42 years. So not annual, a little different there. Well, I'd have to bring those time elements in. Now. Uh, this week's council vote isn't final. Uh, but it looks like that's going to happen and it was close to, we're going to get to a, some bites from a couple of council members on either side of this issue. Uh, but this wasn't supposed to happen. Didn't voters say, uh, just recently here, we're going to put all these on the November election. We want to get them away from March and explain why.

Speaker 7: 18:57 Yeah. But I think 66% of voters in 2016 it was called measure L and it said citizens' initiatives should be voted on by the most people and that typically is in a November general election. And that's what that was the Willow voters. And so this council minority was close, said that we should be following the will of the people, um, those who support this measure States too important to wait any longer. And there was a little out in that measure that said, ultimately the council has the latitude, the discretion to change it to another election

Speaker 1: 19:32 and they took that out. Right. All right, let's hear from a couple of folks on each side of this. Um, on this uh, issue here. Uh, we've got Keith Maddix of the labor council on election shopping,

Speaker 8: 19:46 but here we are again with the TLT increase convention center campaign engaged in election shop. Even though they could have qualified their measure for the November, 2018 election. They did not. They waited and ultimately qualify for the November, 2020 election, but now they want the city council to put them, put them on an early election that favors them, which is a very definition of election shopping.

Speaker 1: 20:14 God, we heard that and now I hear want to hear from a couple of the council members and as we said, there was a quite a debate there. Councilman Mark Kersey voted move forward. BARBRI candidate for a mayor opposes the March vote. Let's hear those.

Speaker 3: 20:26 They didn't want the council to have the authority to do this. They frankly shouldn't have given it to us. None of us wrote that measure. It was submitted as a citizens measure with the passage of measure rail. The rollers told us they want citizens initiatives on the November ballot. This measure can wait eight months. Once we, the councils start putting measures, the March ballot,

Speaker 9: 20:48 we are playing political games. This issue is so important that it should go on the November ballot when more people vote,

Speaker 7: 20:59 right? That's the whole thing. Why are the oil I should point out, um, that first clip, um, that was not Keith Maddix. That's, um, someone who's, um, arguing against putting on the March ballot. Keith Maddix is with the Labour council and he, he supports moving. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 21:13 Okay. We did, um, we queued up the wrong one there. Thank you for straightening that out. So, um, uh, again, now why do we have so many more folks come? I obviously have a presidential election. We've had this national debate talked a lot about in this show about our unusual situation in Washington, but typically it's just a lower turnout. I'm, we're kind of a, a Perrier party oriented turnout in March. Right then November.

Speaker 7: 21:35 Right. But, but ordinarily, but I'm thinking you're going to have a huge turnout in March because, um, so San Diego was going to, our California is going to have a chance to have a say in the a, in the priorities. I think you're going to have a, it's still a very decent turnout. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 21:50 And I'm, I'm glad you pointed that out cause that's the big difference this time. This is on super Tuesday. It's in March. You know, you're only starting a month before the first votes in Iowa and then New Hampshire. So we could really for the first time in a long time, get a lot of folks out in March here, don't you think?

Speaker 7: 22:05 Yeah. Yeah. So I think, I think so. And, and again, as I said, you had a lot of people supporting putting this in March. You have the, the power of labor, big business, um, civic leaders. So I, you know, it's probably not a hard leap to get it into, into March. And as I said that, that Israel does offer that out for the council to have the latitude to change it.

Speaker 1: 22:29 Okay. Now, um, you mentioned earlier the coalition behind this, and I want to get to a mayor Faulkner's stand on it and all of explain who that that coalition is and why you say it's so broad this time and then the mayor, how, how's his leadership gonna impact?

Speaker 7: 22:43 Right. Because normally on a, on a measure like this, you cannot have any bit of opposition or I should say, well funded, organized opposition and I don't believe there's going to be any well-funded, organized opposition. So a combination of organized labor, which isn't always on, you know, on the same side as a Republican mayor,

Speaker 1: 23:02 but it means jobs because [inaudible]

Speaker 7: 23:03 and it means jobs. Yeah, of course. So there, there's thing, both permanent jobs and then huge number of thousands of construction jobs. And then, and as I said, you've got, um, the tourism leadership, the hotels, you've got the chamber and then you've got, um, pretty much a lot of elective leaders in support of this. And, and those who voted against putting in March are not opposed to the measure. They just, they just were saying it should go in November. So you have a pretty unified front. Um, there is this, this group that backed the citizen group that backed the a measure L they are opposing it, but I don't think they're going to have the financial wherewithal and necessarily make a gent in an opposition campaign.

Speaker 1: 23:42 Right. And the, uh, the mayor, it's an important issue to a Kevin Faulkner, right?

Speaker 7: 23:46 Oh, very. I mean, from the day he took office and even when he was a Councilman before he became mayor, this has been, you know, his thing, it says he wants it to be his legacy. And then when mayor Sanders, um, um, when he, former police chief and when he was mayor, it was his, his initiative to, but he couldn't get that through. So this is, this has been a

Speaker 1: 24:05 big deal. So the big argument of course is expand that convention center, which as you said was the, is the bulk of the funds are gonna go to that, but that's to keep Comicon and attract other big convention, uh, compete with Anaheim, Las Vegas, other conventions.

Speaker 7: 24:18 Right, right. Then they want to stay competitive and they can't get the bigger conventions that other, other cities are getting as they expand their centers. But I think a real selling point on this measure is going to be less about the convention center and the homeless funding. The city. Justin council just embraced a big homeless funding program and it's going to need close to $2 billion. Where are they going to get that money? Yeah, there's other sources, but this, this is gonna provide a big chunk of that money that they need to address the homeless.

Speaker 1: 24:43 Excellent. All right. And we've got a few seconds left here. Uh, not the kind of issue that gets a lot of polling, especially this fire out, but any indication of where the poles are. As we said at the outset, it's a two thirds vote. It's hard to do. We were mentioning the [inaudible] three and Oh seven fire famously couldn't get increases in taxes to, to fund firefighting at that time. Right. So, um, of course, uh, I'm told that their internal polling

Speaker 7: 25:05 that they're doing well and it's also helping on them, on their messaging. Are we, they interviewing? We, we um, jointly did a poll with channel 10, and one of the questions was about a convention center ballot measure. It didn't mention the homeless that didn't do so well.

Speaker 1: 25:19 I have a feeling the polling will look better where you wrap it in. Well, we'll certainly see. We'll be talking more about that and see as that goes, a lot of election coverage coming up. Well, that does wrap up another week of stories at the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guest, Robert career of the San Diego union Tribune, Srilina Celani of KPBS news, Rob, Nick Galeski, and Lori Weisberg. Also with the union Tribune. A lot of my union trivia and friends here today, and a reminder, all the stories we discussed today are available on our website. KPBS dot O R. G I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today and join us again next Friday on the round table. [inaudible].

KPBS Roundtable podcast branding

KPBS Roundtable

Mark Sauer hosts KPBS Roundtable, a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.