California Voters to Choose: PG&E and Refineries or Clean Energy and the Climate

It's obvious, right? Monopoly utilities and oil refineries that want to keep peddling their wares finance ballot measures to mislead voters into postponing the inevitable move away from fossil fuels. Nothing new here, but California voters get ready for the next round this election season.

First, PG&E is backing an initiative called Proposition 16: New Two-Thirds Requirement for Local Public Electricity Providers Act, which will be on the June Primary ballot. The measure would limit the ability of California cities to go into the public power business and force local governments that want to compete with PG&E to win the approval of two-thirds of their voters.

The intent seems to be to solidify PG&E's monopoly status, and so far it has succeeded in generating some interesting opposition artwork. But there are important clean energy implications. Prop 16 would block cities from delivering more clean energy for their residents than PG&E does. Its target is a law, Assembly Bill 117, known as Community Choice Aggregation or CCA, which enabled California cities and counties to circumvent their utilities and directly procure energy on behalf of electric consumers within their jurisdictions. The CCA system has been adopted into law in the states of California, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

On both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco and Marin County have been pioneers in using the law to increase the amount of renewable energy for their residents. When Marin's Energy Authority goes online this summer, it will offer customers a "deep green" option of 100% renewable energy.

Studies have identified CCA as a high-leverage strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the local level. Sonoma County's Community Climate Action Plan calls it "one of the most potent tools in the financial toolbox," allowing cities the ability to issue H-bonds and secure up to $6 billion for renewable development and efficiency retrofits.

PG&E is required by law to cooperate with cities that decide to implement the Community Choice law. It has also cultivated a green-ish image by supporting AB32 and federal cap and trade legislation (especially the type where they are given allowances for free), boasting about its low coal profile, and creating an offsets program called ClimateSmart. Even so, the Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation, which is the parent company of the regulated Pacific Gas & Electric Company, plans to spend $25 million to $35 million in support of Prop 16. They are the sole sponsor of the initiative. If recollection serves, the Corp was first created to transfer the Company's assets out of the state before declaring bankruptcy during the state's electricity crisis. So other than flouting the law, attacking cities' clean energy programs, and screwing over California taxpayers, what other benefit does the Corp serve? Good question.

Meanwhile, the refineries aren't standing idly by while California creates a green economy. California Assembly member Dan Logue (R-Marysville) has been complaining about the supposed economic impact of the state's AB32 law. Logue hired a political consultant to run an initiative that would suspend AB32 until the state's unemployment rate dips to 5.5 percent, effectively repealing it. Current Attorney General and possible next Governor Jerry Brown gave Logue's measure the lengthy but accurate title, "Suspends Air Pollution Control Laws Requiring Major Polluters to Report and Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions That Cause Global Warming Until Unemployment Drops Below Specified Level for Full Year." Here's where it gets interesting. The sole funders are based in San Antonio, Texas -- Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp. That's not entirely fair. They do business (i.e. pollute) in California. Valero owns petroleum refineries in Benicia and Wilmington, while Tesoro runs plants in Martinez and Los Angeles.

This week Logue's crew started gathering the 433,971 valid signatures needed to qualify the measure for the November ballot. So California voters should prepare for a barrage of election ads paid for by PG&E, Valero, and Tesoro. A somewhat green utility and two brown refineries hope to postpone the necessary transformation to the 21st century green economy. What will the people say?

{slight edits made 6-23-10}