There is a simultaneous oil glut and oil shortage on the West Coast.
In a challenge to the Carter administration that is both technological and political, the state of California quietly has proposed building new oil-fired power plants to avert possible power shortages in the mid-1980s.
The California plan, contained in an unpublicized letter from State Energgy Commission Chairman Richard L. Maulin to a federal agency, appears to run directly counter to the Carter administration's energy policy of discouraging reliance on oil. And it also appears to contradict some of the rosier forecasts of the Brown administration, which last year argued that California could abandon nuclear energy without worry about future power shortages.
But Maulin and a majority of the State Energy Commission contend that the Carter administration can accomplish its long-range goal of having the United States burn less oil by allowing California to burn more oil in the immediate future.
The State's argument is a complicated one, reflecting the irony of the simultaneous ol glut and oil shortage now occurring on the West Coast.
While unwanted high-sulfur "sour" oil from the Alaskan North Slope is sent southward through the Panama Canal the state is importing about a fifth of its petroleum supplies from Indonesia rather than produce more of its own hard-to-refine heavy crude oil
That's because the low-sulfur "sweet" Indonesian oil is far more compatible with both federal and state clean-air standards. California oil companies say they would have to spend anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion to install the desulfurization and other equipment necessary to clean up the Alaskan and Californian oil.
The California argument, contained in a letter from Maulin to David Bardin, administrator of the Economic Regulatory Administration, a branch of the Department of Energy, is that the oil companies will be willing to spend this kind of money if they think they can make more through assurances of a long-term market for the processed oil.
The new California oil-fired power plants, producing 3,300 megawatts of additional power, would provide this market, Maulin contends. In the long run, he says, it means that the state could use more of its domestic oil supply, import less from Indonesia and help the Carter administration accomplish its goal of reducing dependence of foreign oil.
The state needs federal permission to carry out its plan because the Fuel Use Act recently signed by President Carter prohibits new power plants from using petroleum or natural gas as a primary energy source.
California wants the federal government to give the state an exemption for the two new power plants, one of which would be built in the San Francisco area and the othr in southern California.
Another way in which the federal government could accomplish the same purpose is to put California crude oil in the same classification as solar or geothermal power as an "alternative energy source," as it already does with domestic oil shale.
If the federal government fails to let Califronia build the oil-fired plants, Maulin warns, the Carter administration will have to take the consequences for power shortages in California. "I think the president would have a helluva time coming into the state in 1980 and explaning why he didnt give us those power plants," Maullin said in an interview.
Critics of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s administration think that Maulin and others also have some explaning to do. They point out that last year, at the time the Energy Commission was rejecting the proposed Sundesert nuclear power plant, the Brown administration labeled talk of power shortages as alarmist.
"I don't personally think there's any chance at all of an energy shortage in the 1980s," said Tom Quinn, chairman of the State Air Resources Board, in an interview last May.
a different tune is being sung these days. Earlier this week, Maullin and Quinn reached a tentative agreement allowing state air qualtiy standard to be overridden if necessary to speed construction of n ew power plants.
Maullin said that the new procedure will prevent any power shortages -porviding the federal government allows the oil plants to be constructed.
Not everyone in California is happy with the Brown administration's love affair with California crude oil.
Alan D. Pasternak, the lone energy commissioner who favored Sundesert, sarcastically calls Maullin's plan "the California oil consumption project for the 1980s."
"I think it's a bad policy to build new baseload oil pplants." says Pasternak. "Every time you build one of these plants you're talking about a 30-or40-year commitment ot oil."
Maullin's view the state is simply buying time until coal gasification plants and other energy sources become technologically feasible. A consortium of private industry encouraged by the state currently is planning a commercial demonstration coal gasification plant near Barstow.
The desire of the major oil companies for an assured market for Alaska and California oil seems to have pressed them into an uneasy alliance with the Brown administration in favor of the new oil-fired plants.
But the oil companies seem less certain than the Brown administration that the proposed plants will be built.
Carleton (Bud) Scott, director of environmental sciences for Union Oil, says the new federal air pollution requirement may prevent development of the California crude even if the power plant exemptions are granted. The process of desulfurization creates nitrogen oxide emissions above the permissible levels, he says.
Scott says that "everyone"-by which he means the federal government, the state and oil companies-shares the goal of reducing foreign oil dependence and developing the vast fields of California crude estimated to be equal to Alaskan North Slope resources.
"We all want to do it," he says. "We just can't get through the hoop of the Clean Air Act."
Those who are not part of the alliance observe that the state, even while imposiing its own though standards on nuclear development, is relaxing the standards on fossiil fuel. They see the Brown administration as abandoning its commitment to the environment in a crash effort to avoid power shortages.
"We're all doing this at the time air pollution is a significant problem," says Pasternak. "Whatever happened to blue skies for California?"