Sierra Club Seeks Accountability for Union Claims about Project Labor Agreement Imposed on Proposed Hydrogen Energy Power Plant in Kern County, California

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Whether or not you agree with the vision and political agenda of the Sierra Club California, most people in politics would acknowledge that this group’s objections to proposed projects and activities under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA (California Public Resources Code Section 21000 et seq. are genuinely based on environmental concerns. In other words, they don’t seek some kind of unrelated economic payoff from the project developer under the guise of environmental activism: they ARE environmental activists.

Sometimes the Sierra Club and other legitimate environmental groups find themselves on the same side with California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) or other coalitions of unions in opposing proposed projects. Surely this is an awkward relationship, because those unions will fight viciously on environmental grounds until they get their Project Labor Agreement or other union agreement. Then they suddenly announce that their environmental issues have been adequately addressed, and they SUPPORT the project, thus turning on the real environmental groups.

The awkwardness in the relationship between labor unions and environmental groups (the so-called Blue-Green Alliance) was revealed as early as 2004, in a Sacramento Bee article (“Pressure by Labor Group Alleged” – Sacramento Bee – September 19, 2004)

Some environmentalists who once welcomed CURE’s involvement now question its motives.

Sierra Club lobbyist V. John White once told the Contra Costa Times that CURE raises “valid issues and (moves) those issues forward.”

Interviewed for this story, White said he still thinks CURE has “done some good things.” But he’s troubled that CURE attacked an Imperial County geothermal plant [the Salton Sea Unit 6 Geothermal Power Plant, later called the Black Rock 1, 2, and 3 Geothermal Power Project – ed.] for which he has lobbied, a project designed to produce renewable energy from underground reservoirs of steam.

“They added costs and significantly delayed it, and the reasons had little to do with the environment,” White said.

Sierra Club Questions Claims of Project Labor Agreement Imposed on Proposed Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) Power Plant

The Sierra Club has long been concerned about the proposed Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) Power Plant, what it calls a “complicated and controversial project” near Buttonwillow in rural Kern County. This project has received extra attention because of up to $408 million in funding authorized for the project through the U.S. Department of Energy – much of it from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the Obama stimulus package, or H.R. 1 from 2009. The www.Recovery.gov web site has more details about the $90 million in stimulus money already spent on Hydrogen Energy California (HECA), but as stated in this April 22, 2011 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission order on Hydrogen Energy California (HECA):

Hydrogen argues that the United States Department of Energy (DOE) has recognized the project’s importance to the nation and California by providing substantial financial assistance. According to Hydrogen, its project was awarded $308 million in financial assistance on September 28, 2009, in connection with DOE’s Clean Coal Power Initiative and an additional $100 million in financial assistance was added by DOE in September 2010.

Originally the project was planned by a joint venture of British Petroleum (BP) and Rio Tinto, but in 2011 the project was transfered to SCS Energy, based in Concord, Massachusetts (a socio-economic world away from Buttonwillow). In 2012, the Sierra Club became active in exercising its status as an approved intervenor in the California Energy Commission’s licensing process for the proposed Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) power plant. It submitted a letter dated August 2, 2012 to the California Energy Commission questioning numerous aspects of the proposed project and demanding more information.

One of the data requests in the Sierra Club’s August 2 letter on HECA to the California Energy Commission (which must be answered by the applicant for the project approval) questions the claims made about local hiring and employment under the Project Labor Agreement that the project’s prime contractor, Fluor Corporation, claims to have signed with the national Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, and the Kern, Inyo, Mono Counties Building Trades Council.

Project supporters held a press conference with union officials in Buttonwillow on May 31, 2012 to tout the alleged benefits of the Project Labor Agreement. An article in the Bakersfield Californian posted on May 31, 2012 (“Hydrogen Plant Agrees to Union Labor“) reported on the Project Labor Agreement but noted a few less savory aspects of the agreement:

The agreement gives Hydrogen Energy California significant new support as it looks to state agencies for approval. It also takes HECA’s owner, Massachusetts-based SCS Energy, a step further than the previous partners, BP and Rio Tinto, which a project spokeswoman said were in talks with construction unions but never formalized a labor agreement.

A spokesman for the trade group Associated Builders & Contractors Inc. [of Central California in Bakersfield – ed.], Russell Johnson, said the labor agreement was unfortunate because it could raise the project’s costs and “shut out” the 85 percent of California construction firms that are not union shops.

The article did not mention that California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) had become an intervenor in the California Energy Commission’s licensing procedure for HECA. Nor did it mention CURE’s reputed history of blocking or delaying approval of proposed power plants using the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) until the developer or its agent signed a Project Labor Agreement. As you would expect, California Unions for Reliable Energy has not expressed any concerns about the environmental impact of this 400 megawatt project – that’s so strange considering how adamantly CURE objects to relatively innocuous small solar projects in the San Joaquin Valley!

Obviously the Sierra Club is skeptical about the union propaganda about “local hiring” concerning Project Labor Agreements for energy generation facilities in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Here is the excerpt from its August 2, 2012 letter, which speaks for itself:

Background: CONSTRUCTION TRAFFIC TRAVEL DISTANCES

The AFC, p. 5.1-9, states that trip distances for estimating off-site construction emissions were based on the assumption that workers and delivery trucks are traveling within Kern County. Appendix E-2, p. 35, shows that the AFC assumes off-site roundtrip distances worker commuting vehicles, delivery trucks, and import fill trucks of between 38.0 to 39.8 miles, i.e., it assumes that all vehicles operate only within a radius of less than 20 miles around the Project site. The AFC does not provide any support for these assumptions. A 20-mile roundtrip distance appears unrealistically short for both the construction workforce and the delivery/fill import vehicles and may therefore underestimate emissions associated with vehicle travel.

Data Requests:

25. According to the AFC, p. 5.8-15, the average size of the workforce over the approximately 49-month construction and commissioning period would be 1,159 workers (including construction workers and contractor staff); the peak month of construction would require 2,090 craft workers (on site) and 371 contractor staff. It appears unlikely that a sufficiently skilled construction labor force would be available in Kern County within a 20 mile radius of the Project site. Further, based on the 1982 report Socioeconomic Impacts of Power Plants by the Electric Power Research Institute, construction workers will commute as much as 60 miles daily to construction sites from their homes rather than relocate, and considerably further on a weekly basis. This indicates that the construction workforce would likely come from farther than 20 miles from the Project site. Elsewhere, the AFC states that approximately 60 percent of the workforce is expected to be hired from within Kern County but that it is possible that some portion of the labor force will be drawn from Los Angeles County. (AFC, pp. 5.8-3, -16 and -18.) In addition, HECA has recently signed a project labor agreement (“PLA”) with the National Building and Construction Trades Department, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, and the Kern, Inyo, and Mono Counties Building and Construction Trades Council. Thus, some of the construction workforce may come from Inyo and Mono Counties. The southern border of Mono County is more than 150 miles from the Project site.

a) Please provide a copy of the PLA and/or indicate whether the PLA contains a breakdown for the origin of the construction workforce by county.

b) Please provide a breakdown of the available construction labor workforce by county.

c) Please identify typical travel distances for the construction workforce by county.

d) Please discuss whether you anticipate that construction workers would commute from their residence on a daily or weekly basis or seek lodging closer to the Project site.

e) Please revise emission estimates for worker vehicle travel during Project construction according to your responses above.

Now more of the truth will come out about the union workforce locked in to build this power plant.

3 comments

  1. personification_personified says:

    With friends like the Sierra Club, who needs a CURE?

  2. Eric Christen says:

    Excellent summary of events to date Kevin. As hard as I find it to believe the Sierra Club may be getting tired of CURE’s extortion tactics. For this group however, like all groups on the left, we must always remember Kerensky’s time proven adage: pas d’ennemis `a gauche.

    Time will tell.

  3. amanaplanacanalpanama says:

    I am sure that the Adams, Broadwell lawyers of C.U.R.E. will make the Sierra Club “an offer they cannot refuse” and all of the snooping around will end.