They say you cannot fight city hall, but recently some folks unhappy with the California Energy Commission’s decision to give hydrogen-fueling station contracts only to bidders approved by the major automakers won a victory. It’s a reversal of what they called “sweet heart” deals.

Citizens don’t often get change from their government ofiicials. This, however, is a classic case of how sunlight can still be the best disinfectant.

Tom Elias, a long time syndicated columnist, broke the story of the boondoggle and its collapse. After enough heat and light, the Commissioner responded by saying it would nix the automakers’ veto power in the contracts.

Elias writes:

Less than two weeks after this column exposed a situation where tens of millions of state tax dollars were given to billion-dollar corporations —- but only with approval from other billion-dollar corporations —- the California Energy Commission suddenly ended that practice.

In a message sent late May 25, the commission said it “is canceling its grant solicitation for hydrogen fueling stations in order to revise solicitation protocols. The commission will issue a new solicitation at a future date.”

The grants, funded by vehicle license fees under a 2007 law authored by former Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, amounted to $15 million in 2010, with an additional $12 million winning tentative approval in April. Those grants have now been canceled.

The grants are designed to encourage construction of refueling stations for hydrogen fuel cell cars that are due to hit showrooms by 2017. These will be built by eight automakers:Nissan, Toyota, Honda, GM, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Daimler and Hyundai.

The Energy Commission’s Schwarzenegger-era policy was to require that at least one automaker approve any refueling location before a grant application could even be considered.

Elias’s first column on the scandal ran statewide at a time when the goverment is trying to sell austerity and prudence to the public, which will vote on tax hikes in November. Government officials need voters’ trust. The Commission felt the heat and changed the recipe.

Whether hydrogen vehicles are the best way to go remains to be seen, and most at Consumer Watchdog are skeptical. But at least the contracting for the developing fueling system won’t allowed to be rigged in favor of the major automakers and their allies.
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Posted by Jamie Court, author of The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell and President of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.