By Lucas Zucker
It would be fitting for Oxnard to be the last stand of fossil fuel power plants in California. Like so many other low-income communities of color who live in the shadow of power plants, oil refineries, and drilling sites, burdened by the nation’s insatiable appetite for dirty energy, the residents of Oxnard are fighting back, pitting high school students from farmworker families against Fortune 500 company lobbyists in a power struggle whose effects could ripple across the state. "This could be a battle over the last fossil fuel power plant in California,” says Matt Vespa, senior attorney with the Sierra Club. And it’s beginning to look like a battle we might win.
Oxnard is the largest city along California’s Central Coast—a sweeping rural region stretching along the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area—with an economy built on agriculture, the military, and the oil industry, dotted with beach towns and farmworker enclaves. The coastal city of 200,000 sits atop some of the most fertile soil on Earth, and is bordered by the last major free-flowing river and the largest wetland habitat left in Southern California. Oxnard’s population is 85 percent people of color (74 percent Latino) with nearly half of all adults having less than a high school education. As a low-income, predominantly immigrant community, Oxnard has long been used as the dumping ground for the Central Coast’s most polluting industries. The city ranks in the top 20 percent of the most environmentally burdened communities in the state, with some parts of the city ranking within the top 10 percent, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA). Oxnard’s beaches are home to three gas-fired power plants and an EPA Superfund toxic waste site. California Department of Public Health data shows that Oxnard has more students attending school in close proximity to the highest levels of toxic pesticide use than anywhere else in the state.
After Years of Pollution, Resistance
In recent years, community members have organized to push back and demand an end to the environmental injustices facing Oxnard. In 2006, when BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, proposed a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal off the coast of Oxnard, which would have run a hazardous pipeline beneath densely populated low-income residential neighborhoods and been the largest source of pollution in Ventura County, more than 3,000 residents turned out for a State Lands Commission hearing to oppose the project, resulting in its rejection. The overwhelming outpouring of community voices speaking against the LNG terminal was a turning point for a city with a history of being targeted by polluters.
The defeat of the LNG project came in the wake of a $13 million grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to conduct a massive environmental restoration of Oxnard’s coastal wetlands. It was followed by the United States EPA putting an abandoned toxic waste site on Oxnard’s beaches on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) for cleanup. For many residents, it felt like Oxnard was finally seeing a gradual dismantling of the wall of pollution and industry between the community and the ocean, and that a legacy of environmental injustice was beginning to come to an end.
In 2014, NRG Energy, the largest power generation company in the United States, proposed yet another gas-fired power plant on Oxnard’s coast. Burdened as it has been for decades by fossil fuel power generation for all the surrounding cities and the smokestacks of three power plants along its coastline, Oxnard was not surprised at being targeted once again by polluters. But this time, after nearly a decade of environmental justice awareness, Oxnard residents were organized and ready to fight back.
The Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which had led the protests against the LNG terminal, sprang into action, bringing together community groups and leaders to oppose the project. When outraged residents packed city hall chambers, the city council moved quickly to pass an emergency moratorium blocking any new power plants along Oxnard’s coast.
“The people of Oxnard will no longer just accept further industrialization of our beautiful, but abused coast,” said Carmen Ramirez, Oxnard’s Mayor Pro Tem. “We want the same economic, recreational and aesthetic opportunities that other California coastal cities enjoy. Our future is at stake and state agencies and private industry must respect the wishes of the people who do not want yet another power plant on Oxnard’s shore.”
NRG Tries “Astroturfing,” Threats of Abandonment
NRG immediately began to campaign furiously to undercut the staunch local opposition to the power plant. The company conducted an “astroturfing” campaign, inviting residents to a free dinner and presentation about the “new and improved” power plant, trying to persuade them to speak in support of the project at the city council meeting. NRG also ramped up contributions to local nonprofits and offered local veterans free tickets to the Ventura County Fair. They dubbed the proposed power plant “Puente” (bridge, in Spanish), as in, “bridge to a better future.” But above all, NRG’s strategy focused on the two ancient power plants on Oxnard’s beaches that they already operated.
The two old power plants use an obsolete technology called “once-through cooling,” which is deadly for local marine life. Both plants will have to be turned off by the year 2020—along with 17 other once-through cooling power plants along California’s coast—following a state water board mandate[i]. If the city refused to support NRG’s plans, the company threatened to abandon both plants to rust on the reach. NRG representatives ominously pointed to Morro Bay, a town farther up the Central Coast, where the operators of a once-through cooling power plant put a padlock on the door and walked away, leaving the city unable to afford the tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. NRG insists that they have no legal responsibility to remove the power plants after they are shut down, even though they bought the plants after the water board ruling, knowing they would eventually have to cease operations.
Oxnard residents are all too familiar with irresponsible corporations whose shareholders profit for decades and then abandon their harmful sites in the community: the city’s Superfund toxic waste site is courtesy of Halaco, a metal smelter who left behind a radioactive slag heap at Ormond Beach.
When the city refused to blink, NRG resorted to hardball tactics. The company withdrew its public relations staff from Oxnard and sent a letter to the California Coastal Commission, asking them to pull back funding they had granted to the city to complete its Local Coastal Plan, which set out a long-term vision for a de-industrialized and restored Oxnard coastline.
Ultimately, NRG had no need to persuade Oxnard to accept the power plant. The city’s tenuous position could have been easily cast aside by two state agencies with the power to approve or deny power plants: the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (CEC). The CPUC is notoriously inaccessible, opaque and beholden to industry. Its president was forced to resign in 2014 following a scandal around inappropriate dealings with utility giant PG&E.[ii] Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) , represented by attorneys with the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), challenged the power plant proposal at the state level alongside the City of Oxnard and the Sierra Club (Los Padres Chapter).
Oxnard: Engaged, Informed and not Afraid to Speak Out
Environmental justice and traditional environmental groups were armed with two maps that laid out the core of the legal argument against the NRG power plant. The first was a groundbreaking sea level rise map[iii] by The Nature Conservancy, which has several major environmental restoration projects in Ventura County, and took a special focus on mapping the impact of climate change on the Ventura County coast, especially low-lying Oxnard. The Nature Conservancy’s projections showed the proposed coastal power plant directly in the path of sea level rise, with potential flooding threatening the reliability of energy for the region. The second was the Cal Enviroscreen,[iv] a first-of-its-kind environmental justice map produced by the California EPA, which mapped the nexus of environmental health hazards and vulnerable populations, showing Oxnard’s status as one of the most negatively- impacted communities in the state. Utility companies in California are required to consider environmental justice when looking at proposals for new power plants to ensure that they are not concentrated in low-income communities of color, a requirement which Southern California Edison ignored when picking NRG’s power plant proposal for Oxnard.
Both state agencies held public participation hearings in Oxnard. Hundreds of residents turned out for each, overwhelmingly speaking against the NRG power plant and stunning observers. In a low-income immigrant community like Oxnard, residents are expected to be unaware, uninformed, unengaged, and afraid to speak out. Many of the speakers were from Oxnard’s predominantly Latino and politically-progressive younger generation. Dozens of local high school and community college students showed up to oppose the project. Many of the youth, organized through local chapters of CAUSE, Future Leaders of America, and the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, also rode a midnight bus to San Francisco to speak directly to the CPUC and rally outside the agency’s offices.
“The Oxnard power plant exemplifies a fight where the community is demanding that the California Public Utilities Commission consider environmental justice over fossil fuels and profits,” said Strela Cervas, co-director of CEJA. “Everytime we build another polluting power plant, we take a step away from the growing potential of renewable energy that can power up California. California needs to stop plugging into dirty energy and power up our communities with clean renewable energy. Local renewable energy brings health, good jobs and economic investments into communities that need it the most.”
The organizing efforts and legal arguments against the NRG power plant made an impact on Regina DeAngelis, the judge assigned to the case at the CPUC. In January 2016, she issued a precedent-setting proposed decision recommending that the project not be approved until the energy commission conducts further analysis of the sea level rise and the environmental justice impacts of the proposed power plant. This was the first time the CPUC had ever declined to approve a power plant based on either risks stemming from climate change or a disproportionate burden on a disadvantaged community. Because of the statewide precedent that would be set if the utility commissioners approved the judge’s proposed decision, NRG and the energy and utility industry immediately pushed back hard, putting immense pressure on the commissioners to overturn DeAngelis’ proposed decision and consider instead an alternate proposal by Commissioner Carla Peterman, which would approve the plant. After several postponements, the community still awaits a final decision from the commission in March.
A Certain Poetic (Climate) Justice Will Prevail
The battle over a power plant in Oxnard has attracted such widespread attention not just for its legal significance, but also as a turning point in the state’s energy future. In the midst of the CPUC’s Oxnard proceeding, the California state legislature passed the historic SB350, a groundbreaking climate change policy that included a mandate for utilities in the state to achieve 50 percent of their energy from clean, renewable sources by the year 2030. This ambitious target pushes California’s energy industry to ramp up the construction of a renewable energy infrastructure and brings into question the value of building another new gas-fired power plant anywhere in the state.
“Clean energy resources like solar and energy storage continue to decline in cost and can provide dependable power without the health and climate impacts of gas plants," says Matt Vespa of the Sierra Club.
Perhaps poetic justice will prevail, as power plants shortsightedly built along the Pacific Ocean long ago are removed in anticipation of the rising seas caused by their own emissions. Whether or not Oxnard’s environmental justice activists are able defeat NRG’s power plant this year, the tide seems to be turning. The question is no longer whether children growing up in Oxnard will one day see a shoreline free of smokestacks, but how long before they do.
Lucas Zucker does policy research and advocacy, youth organizing, and communications for CAUSE. He was born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in Oakland and Ventura, CA.