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DAN RATHER, anchor:

California raced today to keep the state’s energy crisis from reaching critical mass and cascading wider and deeper into the US economy. Emergency meetings are scheduled tonight between governors of 10 Western states and the federal government’s top energy officials. This came as California state lawmakers approved a new $ 10 billion plan to buy power. But this is just a flicker of what’s needed in California and beyond. CBS’ John Blackstone in San Francisco begins our coverage of this big developing story. John.


Dan, Californians were told today they’ll have to change the way they live to cope with even more severe power shortages in the months ahead. California’s governor announced a sweeping conservation plan. As part of it, businesses that fail to conserve energy will be fined.

Governor GRAY DAVIS (Democrat, California): I am mandating by March 15th that every retail establishment in this state substantially reduce their outdoor lighting.

BLACKSTONE: Businesses that don’t respond by turning out their lights would be fined $ 1,000 a day. The governor’s order is part of a statewide energy conservation plan the governor suggests could be the only way to avoid more blackouts.

Gov. DAVIS: We will save energy and also send the right signal that we’re all in this together.

BLACKSTONE: As part of the conservation campaign, a series of TV commercials will urge Californians to change the way they live–for example, doing their laundry late at night.

BLACKSTONE: The state Legislature today approved another part of the governor’s plan, a $ 10 billion program to buy electricity and relieve the huge debts owed by the state’s utilities. But consumer advocates say the bill amounts to a handout to the companies responsible for the crisis.

Mr. DOUGLAS HELLER (Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights): Do we bail out companies that have cheated the public, that have taken the ratepayers’ money and skipped town, or are we going to tell them, ‘No more’?

BLACKSTONE: In the ever-worsening power crisis, California’s biggest utility, PG&E, today failed to pay almost $ 1 billion it owes to electricity generators. That adds to the risk of blackouts, as the generating companies become increasingly reluctant to sell to California, fearing they’ll never get paid for electricity they send to the state.

And California’s situation could worsen dramatically next week. That’s when a federal order expires that requires other Western states to send surplus power here. On many days recently, out-of-state electricity has been crucial to keeping the lights on in California.

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