Construction trade unions in California are deploying their full arsenal of strategies under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to block the construction and operation of geothermal energy generating facilities by Ormat Technologies, a “leading geothermal company and the only vertically-integrated company in the geothermal and recovered energy power business.”
It’s another example of union “greenmail” to exploit environmental laws in pursuit of labor agreements and other economic concessions unrelated to environmental protection.
As stated by Ormat Technologies on page 1 of its response to a 2011 complaint to the California Energy Commission from California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), the unions are “seeking leverage for a project labor agreement.” Or as stated by its representative at a subsequent September 26, 2011 hearing of the California Energy Commission, “‘Let me guess. Ormat doesn’t have a Project Labor Agreement.’ That’s why we’re here.”
Here are some of the recent projects in which construction unions have attempted to interfere with Ormat Technologies’ proposed and operating geothermal energy generation plants.
Hudson Ranch II Geothermal Plant – Imperial County
As reported in the minutes of the Imperial County Planning Commission meeting on September 12, 2012, the law firm of Lozeau Drury submitted a “huge comment letter…five minutes before the meeting” on behalf of the Laborers Union (LIUNA) Local No. 1184 objecting to the Final Environmental Impact Report for the Hudson Ranch II Geothermal Plant. After the Planning Commission (and county staff) approved the project, the union appealed the decision to the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, which rejected the appeal and approved the project.
News Coverage of Union Environmental Objections:
County Planning Commission Approves Hudson Ranch II Geothermal Plant – Imperial Valley Press – September 12, 2012
Christina Caro, attorney for the Laborers International Union of North America came in opposition of the project. “Injection of geothermal brine has the potential to cause seismic activities,” she said. The project can also cause discomfort to local communities, animals such as horses and cattle, said Caro while alleging that mitigation was insufficient…
LIUNA’s comments were addressed as well, first by commissioner Dennis Bergh who said no evidence correlating brine extraction and seismic activity has been recorded. Willis also defended the EIR. “This document (EIR) does address each one of (the) issues and meets (California Environmental Quality Act) adequacy,” she said.
Hudson Ranch II Geothermal Plant Approved – Imperial Valley Press – October 24, 2012
Hudson Ranch II, a 49-megawatt geothermal plant set for Niland, was approved for development despite an appeal from the Laborers International Union of North America…
Both plants are expected to create dozens of jobs and bring millions of dollars in revenue to the county. And yet, the laborers’ union and two Imperial County residents appealed to the Planning Commission what they said were various environmental issues such as hydrology, loss of agricultural land and perhaps most important, compliance to the California Environmental Quality Act.
The laborers’ union is in support of renewable energy projects, union attorney Christina Caro said. However, she said her clients support those projects as long as they are done in an environmentally responsible manner.
Casa Diablo IV Development Project – Mono County
As I reported in my blog post Environmental Lawyers Make Long Trek to Mono County to Block Geothermal Energy Projects so Unions Can Get a Project Labor Agreement, California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) and the Laborers Union (LIUNA) Local No. 783 objected on environmental grounds in the fall of 2012 to construction of a geothermal power plant in Mono County. CURE was represented by the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo, and the Laborers Union is represented (now through a lawsuit, Concerned Bishop Residents v. County of Mono) by the law firm of Lozeau Drury.
News Coverage of Union Environmental Objections:
County Gives Thumbs Up to Geothermal Plant Expansion – Mammoth Times – November 16, 2012
The Mono County Board of Supervisors soundly rejected an appeal of a plan to expand the Casa Diablo geothermal plant Tuesday, after two out of area (mostly) union advocacy groups appealed the project during an almost five-hour public hearing. It’s the second time the groups have been in Mono County in the past few months…
The supervisors and county staff, one after the other, threw water on the groups’ claims that the environmental analysis done by the county was not adequate.
“It’s illuminating to me that the air district didn’t have a problem with this, yet you do,” said Supervisor Larry Johnston, when one group, called Californians For Reliable Energy, or CURE, said the expansion of the plant would create hazardous ozone pollution.
Union Advocacy Group Sues Over Geothermal Plant Project – Mammoth Times – January 11, 2013
The lawsuit follows hard on the heels of several other actions from LIUNA and another union advocacy group called California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE). The two groups have been involved in commenting on and/or challenging the environmental review planning process for the past few years, making extensive comments about the inadequacy of the EIR, and appealing the Mono County Planning Commission’s and, the Mono County Board of Supervisor’s approval of the project.
The county has been critical of the tactics of the union groups in the past, calling it “greenmail,” wherein a group uses the pretext of environmental concerns about a proposed renewable energy project to try to gain construction work for its union members.
North Brawley and East Brawley Geothermal Developments – Imperial County (Ormat Technologies)
On June 28, 2011, the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo submitted a “Verified Complaint and Request for Investigation” on behalf of California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) to the California Energy Commission. The complaint claimed that Ormat Technologies was trying to evade the licensing jurisdiction of the California Energy Commission by breaking up a single geothermal development into smaller pieces that fall below the 50 megwatt minimum threshold for CEC involvement. The North Brawley project was already built and operating when this complaint was filed, and the East Brawley project had been in the permitting process in Imperial County for three years.
The California Energy Commission rejected the complaint and then rejected a petition for reconsideration. See the full CEC docket for this proceeding: Complaint against Ormat Nevada, Inc. by California Unions for Reliable Energy.
CURE sued the California Energy Commission in Alameda County Superior Court to vacate its decision. After a court hearing in August and another in November, the court ruled against California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) on November 15, 2012.
The case is California Unions for Reliable Energy v. State of California State Energy Resources (the official name of the California Energy Commission), Ormat Nevada, Inc. as Real Party in Interest, case number RG12610669. Here’s a summary of the case from Ormat Technologies’ quarterly report for the first quarter of 2012 filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
On January 4, 2012, the California Unions for Reliable Energy (“CURE”) filed a petition in the Alameda Superior Court, naming the California Energy Commission (“CEC”) and the Company as defendant and real party in interest, respectively. The petition asks the Court to order the CEC to vacate its decision which denied, with prejudice, the complaint filed by CURE against the Company with the CEC. The CURE complaint alleged that the Company’s North Brawley project and East Brawley project both exceed the CEC’s 50 MW jurisdictional threshold and therefore are subject to the CEC licensing authority rather than the Imperial County licensing authority. In addition, the CURE petition asks the Court to investigate and halt any ongoing violation of the Warren Alquist Act by the Company, and to award CURE attorney’s fees and costs. As to North Brawley, CURE alleges that the CEC decision violated the Warren Alquist Act because it failed to consider provisions of the County permit for North Brawley, which CURE contends authorizes the Company to build a generating facility with a number of Ormat Energy Converters (“OECs”) capable of generating more than 50 MW. As to East Brawley, CURE alleges that the CEC decision violated the Warren Alquist Act because it failed to consider the conditional use permit application for East Brawley, which CURE contends shows that the Company requested authorization to build a facility with a number of OECs capable of generating more than 50 MW.
The Company believes that the petition is without merit and intends to respond and take necessary legal action to dismiss the proceedings. The parties have filed briefs in the proceeding, and the matter is set for hearing. The filing of the petition in and of itself does not have any immediate adverse implications for the North Brawley or East Brawley projects and the Company continues to operate the North Brawley project in the ordinary course of business and is proceeding with its development work on the East Brawley project.
So Ormat Technologies (and the California Energy Commission and Imperial County) won this round, but the union harassment using environmental laws will continue.