“You can fight a great fight at the state level and it could be all negated at the federal level,” Powers said.
The engineer also tangled with Latham & Watkins when he organized the Border Power Plant Working Group and sought more detailed environmental assessments of proposed electric transmission lines across the U.S. border to reach power plants in Mexicali, Mexico, where environment standards are far less demanding. Latham & Watkins opposed the additional assessments. The border group ultimately lost that fight, and the lines were built without additional environmental review.
San Diego Gas & Electric declined to respond to questions about its relationship with Hayes. Public records indicate he lobbied for SDG&E as recently as 2006, apparently evading a two-year ban on lobbyists imposed by President Obama.
Just prior to the Hayes confirmation, the Interior Department declined to answer questions about him or make the then nominee available for comment. Surprisingly, however, the call to the Interior Department prompted an unsolicited call to this reporter from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Johanna Wald, a senior attorney with the environmental group, said she was tipped by sources within Interior about recent Hayes queries. She called in support of Hayes, with whom she worked when he was deputy secretary of the Interior in the Clinton administration.
“He is a proven manager, which is what the department needs now,” said Wald. “They need a proven manager to clean up the department and its agencies after eight years of the Bush administration.”
Wald added that Hayes “will not be working for a utility. He will be working for the Obama administration, and I truly believe he will give the administration his first and only loyalty.”
The environmental attorney added that while distributed generation should be an important part of energy policy, it was not sufficient to solve the environmental problems we confront in a timely manner.
Another source, who declined to be named, said Hayes has already signaled that he will be given broad responsibility for matters related to California. The source noted that Hayes was well-regarded by some in the water conservation community because of efforts he undertook during the stint in the Clinton administration.
Hayes has also worked with the World Wildlife Fund and was a consulting professor at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. Laura Cyphert, a Lakeside resident active in opposing Sunrise, isn’t reassured. Citing his work for San Diego Gas & Electric, Cyphert said, “I don’t believe he could perform his duties in an unbiased manner.” Her concern, she added, is that the Interior Department will “rubber-stamp” backcountry projects without regard to environmental impact reports, “as we have seen in the case of Sunrise.”
Donna Tisdale, who heads a group called Backcountry Against the Dump and is among the leaders in the fight against Sunrise, said she had the same concerns.
“With Hayes at Interior, SDG&E can walk right in without an appointment,” said Tisdale, who recently coproduced a documentary film about Sunrise. “I have been through this before: little communities try to fend off a big corporation but the skids get greased for the big company that they slam their projects right through.”
Beyond Sunrise, local environmentalists consider SDG&E’s environmental record abysmal. They note that the local utility has predicted it will likely fail to meet a state mandate requiring utilities to derive 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of next year. In addition, they argue that the plans of Sempra Energy — San Diego Gas & Electric’s parent company — to bring imported natural gas into the region from its new Baja California terminal will result in greater regional pollution.
In the recent webcast, McDonald, the San Diego Gas & Electric Sunrise project director, said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has told a wind-energy association that he would do all he could to ensure that federal lands are available for wind projects. Many wind companies are setting their sights on San Diego’s backcountry for building turbines.
Opponents say the emphasis should be on using local rooftops and open spaces within or near urban areas for renewable development, to avoid both despoiling the backcountry and the expense of building transmission lines. Local activists also argue that deriving power from many small generating projects provides greater security than dependence on big power lines through the fire-prone backcountry, where one wildfire or other outage could cut off a large percentage of electricity supply.
County supervisor Dianne Jacob, who favors emphasizing distributed generation, said San Diego Gas & Electric, along with its parent company Sempra Energy, has bought the support or silence of groups in an effort to block that approach. What is particularly disturbing, she added, was that the effort is financed by money from local utility customers.
“We are one of the sunniest regions of the United States,” said Jacob. “We should have solar all over.”
Hear Craig Rose discuss this story further on Reader Radio!