What began as a local backcountry struggle over San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposed Sunrise Powerlink is now a national issue, one that opponents of the project hope will challenge a key energy strategy of the Obama administration.
The national scope was underscored earlier this month when the Sunrise opponents applauded the U.S. Senate’s action to hold up the nomination of David J. Hayes as deputy secretary of the Interior Department, the agency’s second-highest post.
No matter that the Hayes appointment was blocked by senators seeking to punish Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who has angered them by suspending 77 oil and gas drilling leases near national parks granted in the last days of the Bush administration. And no matter that last week, some of the same senators dropped their opposition and voted for Hayes to be confirmed, after Salazar agreed to review the lease suspensions. Sunrise opponents, for their part, wanted Hayes blocked because he is a former lobbyist for San Diego Gas & Electric and he lobbied for the utility during the period it was pressing hard on transmission projects.
The utility calls Sunrise a “poster child” for renewable-energy strategy, one that other utilities are embracing but that grassroots activists consider misguided.
The issue boils down to where the priorities will lie in developing clean renewable energy: Will the nation build a vast and expensive new network of transmission lines like Sunrise to reach remotely sited energy projects, with much of that infrastructure to be built on heretofore pristine federal lands?
Or will the United States emphasize the development of so-called distributed generation, which consists of rooftop solar and small wind farms close to cities, along with energy-efficiency programs to reach environmental targets and slow global warming?
The Obama administration is placing its bet on the former — long new power lines and big renewable projects on remote lands. The administration has also reportedly elevated Sunrise to key project status, according to a representative of San Diego Gas & Electric. And Obama is allocating billions from the stimulus package for “smart grid” development, which many fear involves building a larger transmission system that will reach into previously undeveloped areas.
“The secretaries of Energy, Interior, and Agriculture, which are three key agencies, together all told us that Sunrise is on the top of the agenda for each of those agencies and that the White House [wants the project],” Laura McDonald, a project director for San Diego Gas & Electric, said in a recent webcast.
Sunrise would stretch from the heart of San Diego County out to Imperial Valley, where San Diego Gas & Electric says the $2 billion transmission line will connect with renewable-energy projects that will be built in coming years. Once in place, the utility says the new line will improve electric reliability by providing a new path to import power to the city. After a three-year-long proceeding, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the project late last year, and now it awaits an approval from the U.S. Forest Service.
Opponents are asking the commission to reconsider its approval of the line but expect little from that process and are raising money for a court fight based on what they maintain was the commission’s disregard for facts developed in the lengthy proceeding. They argue that the line is too expensive, would significantly raise fire hazards, and would do other environmental damage. They also argue that running a lengthy power line through fire-prone backcountry would diminish rather than improve the region’s energy security.
Then there is the matter of who controls the generation of electricity, say Sunrise opponents.
“Everybody understands that if you can put solar panels on rooftops around the country, you would have independence from the likes of SDG&E,” said Diane Conklin, a spokesperson for the Mussey Grade Road, a member of the coalition opposing Sunrise, who has also opposed Hayes’s nomination. “It may not happen immediately, but it will happen over time. They want us tethered to their monopolies.”
In addition, many Sunrise opponents say SDG&E actually wants the new power line to complete an energy system based upon liquefied natural gas — which is not a renewable-energy source — that Sempra plans to import from abroad through a new terminal it constructed along the coast in Baja California, just north of Ensenada. The gas would be piped to generating plants along the border, where it would be burned to produce electricity. Sunrise would allow wider distribution of that electricity throughout California, opponents argue.
Because of the role federal lands could play in projects around the country similar to Sunrise, the nomination of Hayes to the Interior Department has become a flash point. The department manages 500 million acres, or about one-fifth of all land within the United States.
Hayes first caused local concern when he was named a member of the Obama transition team, charged with overseeing appointments to energy, interior, environmental, and agricultural posts. The transition appointment sparked a protest letter from Bill Powers, a local engineer who has played a prominent role in opposing Sunrise and who authored a report building the case for a vast rooftop solar program, instead of the transmission line.
“It is extremely disappointing that Sempra and SDG&E get the inside track in the new administration when so many involved in the Obama campaign have worked to get a new future for energy policy,” said Powers. “Meet the new boss — same as the old boss. This is not what I scraped the bottom to get from a new administration. The Hayes appointment means that SDG&E and Sempra have their [former] lobbyist as head of day-to-day operations at the Interior Department, and that is bad news for opponents of the Sunrise Powerlink.”
Powers and others note that Hayes, as a member of the Latham & Watkins law firm, lobbied for SDG&E during a period when the utility pressed hard for expanded federal powers to site power lines. These expanded powers allow the federal government to usurp the state regulators to make decisions about the approval or rejection of proposed transmission lines.
“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.”
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