July 10, 2002

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Beyond 'public power lite'


AT THE SAN Francisco Board of Supervisors' Rules Committee hearing July 5, some of Sup. Tom Ammiano's staunchest supporters stood up to say that there were problems with his public power charter amendment. Among others, Robert Haaland, who helped run Ammiano's grassroots write-in campaign for mayor two years ago, announced that the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club Political Action Committee was supporting two amendments by Sup. Matt Gonzalez that would greatly toughen the Ammiano bill. Gonzalez – who ran for supervisor with Ammiano's support – says he's so unhappy with the charter amendment that he won't vote for it in its current form.

San Franciscans for Public Power, which first made this an issue in the city, strongly supports the Gonzalez amendments.

Marie Harrison, an environmental justice advocate whom Ammiano endorsed for supervisor in 2000, states in the op-ed piece (left) that "the charter amendment as it now stands would extend the life of the lung-fouling plants years longer than necessary at the same time that it furthers deregulated corporations' control of energy for the city."

As far as we can tell, none of the grassroots progressive groups Ammiano normally works with have come out in support of this measure. So far, the only ones who seem to be lining up behind Ammiano are the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (a downtown group masquerading as moderate that has received substantial funding over the years from PG&E), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (PG&E's union, which has always backed the private utility against public power), and maybe the San Francisco Labor Council, which is – admittedly – trying to avoid an internal fight with the IBEW.

Meanwhile, Ammiano and Sup. Sophie Maxwell have been making statements that appear to be aimed at driving a wedge between the environmental justice community and the public power movement, saying that a comprehensive public power measure (that includes the ability to take over PG&E's grid) might undermine efforts to close the filth-belching power plant at Hunters Point. But it's not working: environmental justice and public power leaders who spoke at the July 5 hearing appeared to be united in support of the Gonzalez amendments.

What we have here, sad to say, is a lose-lose political situation: Ammiano, in an effort to please groups like SPUR (which will never support him for mayor anyway), has put forward a measure that frustrates his traditional allies. In the process, he's setting the public power agenda back by pushing a measure that won't give the city control over its energy future.

The measure Ammiano is pushing – we call it "public power lite" – would create a new water and power agency run by a seven-member appointed board. The mayor and the supervisors each would appoint three, and the city controller would appoint one. The board would have the authority to issue revenue bonds to build new power plants – but not to take over PG&E's grid.

The problem, as we've pointed out repeatedly in the past three weeks, is that an appointed board with the supervisors controlling a minority of the membership will almost certainly be dominated by people who oppose real public power – and who oppose any real, aggressive action to shut down the Hunters Point plant and prevent Mirant Corp. from building a 600-megawatt monster at the foot of Potrero Hill. Mayor Willie Brown, a former PG&E attorney who has always bitterly opposed public power, is not going to appoint anyone who wants to fight with PG&E. And it's unlikely that Controller Ed Harrington, who owes his latest 10-year term to Brown, is going to appoint a real anti-PG&E activist either.

And without the ability to take over the PG&E grid, the new agency will have no effective leverage to use in negotiating with the giant private utility.

In her comments at the July 5 hearing, Sup. Maxwell argued that a buyout of the grid would conflict with plans to shut down the Hunters Point plant. Her argument: the money it would take to buy the poles, wires, meters, etc., would be money not available to build new, clean power generating facilities that would make the old, polluting plant unnecessary. But that's a false dichotomy. For starters (as Greenaction points out) the Hunters Point plant was shut down for four months last winter – and the city had no energy shortage. Conservation and alternative-energy plans already under way in the city could replace much of the Hunters Point output. And most important, under the Gonzalez plan, the new power agency would have extended revenue bond authority – which means the ability to sell bonds backed by the revenue from money-generating projects, including both grid acquisition and new power projects. The money used to buy out the grid would have to be justified by future income from electricity sales over that grid, and the money to build nonpolluting power plants would have to be justified by a separate revenue stream. There would be no conflict whatsoever in doing both.

In fact, under the most likely scenario, a new, independent agency – not controlled by the mayor – would immediately shut down the Hunters Point plant (not in 2005, as the Ammiano measure proposes) and build new generation facilities as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the agency would begin to undertake the complex feasibility and financial studies needed to buy out the PG&E grid. At best, any buyout (which PG&E is certain to fight in court) would be several years away. By the time the agency was ready to even talk about issuing bonds for the buyout, the new plants to replace the shuttered Hunters Point monster would be funded and well under way.

The truth is, the only way to achieve the environmental justice goals Ammiano and Maxwell talk about, in both the short and long term, is to create an accountable public power agency that can get rid of the polluting plants and the companies that run them.

The Rules Committee will vote on this measure July 10. The committee members – Sups. Gonzalez, Gerardo Sandoval, and Tony Hall – should accept the Gonzalez amendments. The good news: Ammiano's office is discussing with Gonzalez's office changes that might be acceptable to all parties. At the very least, the supervisors should amend the measure to ensure that a majority of the new agency members are appointed by the supervisors, that the agency board members have to stand for election at some point in the future, and that the agency have the ability, when and if a credible study shows that it makes sense, to issue revenue bonds to acquire the local power grid.

Anything short of that will stick San Francisco with a weak measure that leaves PG&E and Mirant in the driver's seat and the activist community – Ammiano's base – disheartened and lacking the motivation to work on a tough campaign.