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California in the dark longer this time

Rolling blackouts hit more communities than in January. Meanwhile, the Bush administration warns of a national energy crisis.

Elevators ground to a halt and lights winked out Monday in Beverly Hills, Silicon Valley and other communities up and down California as rolling blackouts for the first time swept across the entire state.

In the worst day yet in the state's power crisis, a series of outages _ which could resume today _ began about noon and continued into the evening. Power was cut to more than 1-million customers.

The blackouts were the first since January, but this time they lasted four hours _ twice as long as those two months ago _ and were spread across a much wider area, from dairy farms in Chino to restaurants in San Francisco and homes near the state capital.

And the crisis may soon spread across the nation.

President Bush and his top advisers, making their case for a broad overhaul of national energy policy, warned Monday that the United States is facing the most serious energy shortage since the 1970s.

Bush said he saw no "short-term fixes" to the country's energy problem as he met with a panel headed by Vice President Dick Cheney that is preparing detailed recommendations for ways to boost domestic production of oil, natural gas and coal.

Concern also is growing that low reserves could cause gasoline prices to spike again this summer.

In California, the sudden plunge into darkness shows that, for all the billions of taxpayer dollars spent and hundreds of hours devoted to keeping the lights on, the state's power problems remain acute.

The blackouts resulted from a patchwork of circumstances: increased demand because of warm weather, a high number of power plant outages, the shutdown of about half the alternative energy producers that sell to the state's major utilities, lower imports of electricity from neighboring states and sharply reduced voluntary power cuts by businesses.

The outages, ordered by California's Independent System Operator _ the state's electricity overseer _ surprised everyone, from Gov. Gray Davis to power company executives to emergency relief workers.

"We didn't know it was coming. The blackout came on the television news and then, right away, all the lights went out," said San Francisco fire Chief Mike Kearney, who works in the city's Ocean View neighborhood.

In Ventura, several people were trapped in an elevator near the 11th floor of the 22-story Dean Witter Building. Workers helped passengers escape through the roof of the elevator car, and employees were led down the stairs by candlelight. At Folsom High School east of Sacramento, teachers used megaphones to tell students to change classes.

Rolling outages were last ordered Jan. 17 and 18, but they were limited to parts of Northern California.

This time, the blackouts stretched from Eureka, 85 miles from the Oregon line, to San Diego and for the first time reached into the suburbs of Los Angeles, which has been unaffected by outages because it has its own municipal power company.

National crisis

Earlier Monday, Energy Secretary Spence Abraham said that failure to address energy supply problems _ from too few power plants to a shortage of oil refineries and too little oil and natural gas drilling _ would threaten economic prosperity and even the nation's security.

Abraham, while not giving details, indicated the task force's recommendations will broadly focus on long-term measures increasing oil, gas and power production, easing regulatory barriers that have discouraged energy investment and finding ways to boost construction of refineries, pipelines and power transmission lines.

Abraham said energy shortages in the West may soon hit other regions, including parts of the Northeast. Straining oil refineries are having trouble keeping up with demand for gasoline in the Midwest and a tight natural gas market has caused prices to rise across the country.

Meanwhile, the Energy Department reported unusually low stocks of both crude oil and gasoline for this time of year. John Cook, chief petroleum analyst for the department's Energy Information Administration, called crude oil and gasoline inventory levels _ about 6 to 7 percent lower than the five-year average _ a sign of possible problems this summer.

Some academic experts dispute the administration's talk of a national energy crisis.

"I don't know that there is a long-term energy problem, to tell the truth," said Paul Joskow, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

High natural gas and oil prices are just functions of a fluctuating free market, Joskow said. He expects they will stabilize before Bush's plan yields results.

_ Information from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Knight Ridder was use in this report.

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