Hours after the California Legislature passed a bill authorizing the state to enter into long-term contacts to buy electricity, Assemblymembers Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) and Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno)led a public hearing on the situation Thursday night.

The hearing, held at the Santa Barbara County Administration Building on East Anapamu Street, was intended to inform the public of the state’s progress in the ongoing energy crisis. The forum, which approximately 100 people attended, allowed citizens an opportunity to voice their concerns to the two politicians who serve on committees participating in the ongoing negotiations in Sacramento. Guests from regulatory agencies, utility companies, power producers and consumer advocacy groups were also on-hand to provide answers to the audience’s questions.

Reyes said community input should not to be taken for granted by the state while it works toward a lasting solution. “There’s a public feeling that deregulation was done in the dark of night, behind closed doors,” she said.

After a brief overview of the history of California’s electricity policy, Jackson and Reyes opened the hearing with questions directed toward the invited industry representatives. Jackson said nonregulated power producers currently charge as much as 50 cents per megawatt of power, while in the past a megawatt cost as little as 5 cents.

“Is there collusion going on [among energy suppliers]?” Jackson asked.

Randy Hickok, managing director of California Assets for Duke Energy, said his company is willing to enter into long-term contracts with the state to sell power at low rates, but pointed to environmental regulations as a roadblock.

“We would love to [establish long-term contracts], but we’ve been stopped every step of the way,” he said.

The state’s environmental regulations have forced several of Duke Energy’s plants to shut down for retrofitting, putting an additional pinch on available power, Hickok said.

“I think the growth of electric consumption [in California] caught everyone off guard,” he said.

Santa Barbara resident Pedro Nava said environmental costs would be ignored if the state was hasty to find a fix to California’s energy woes.

“The environmental community is very concerned that the energy crisis will cause the relaxation of environmental regulations,” Nava said.

Jackson said she was wary of relaxing any of the state’s current environmental laws. “We will be very watchful of that,” she said.

Selma Ruben, a local resident representing the Gray Panthers – an elderly advocacy group – said conservation is an immediate and practical solution that the state needs to emphasize to the public.

“It’s essential that we understand the benefits of fluorescent bulbs over incandescent bulbs,” Ruben said.

One positive aspect of the energy crisis, architect John Kelly said, is it forces California to seriously consider cleaner alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind power.

“It’s an opportunity to incorporate innovative long-term solutions,” he said. “The opportunity is ours if we embrace it.”