Construction trade unions in California remain distressed about how solar power is harming the environment. Their latest worry is the 150-megawatt Willow Springs Solar Project proposed for Kern County, in Antelope Valley at the Los Angeles County border.
An energy company called First Solar has been planning this project since 2010. In February 2015 Kern County released a Draft Environmental Impact Report for the solar project. Substantial objections to this project then emerged from an unincorporated association called “Kern County Citizens for Responsible Solar,” represented by the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo in South San Francisco.
This group claims the county isn’t complying with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in its evaluation of the environmental impact of the solar power plant. Although the county has tried to modify subsequent versions of its Environmental Impact Report to address these objections, the association’s law firm continues to insist that the report is inadequate.
This process became absurd. At one point a change made by the county to mollify Kern County Citizens for Responsible Solar even triggered a new objection – from the East Kern Air Pollution Control District!
Finally, the Kern County Planning Commission had enough and scheduled a hearing on March 10, 2016 to approve the Final Environmental Impact Report. On that morning, the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo submitted a new set of objections. Later that day, a lawyer representing “Kern County Citizens for Responsible Solar” warned the Planning Commission that Kern County had failed to properly evaluate the environmental impact of the solar project. Also at the meeting to speak out against the project were the head of the Kern-Inyo-Mono Building and Construction Trades Council and the head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union No. 428 in Bakersfield.
What’s the true identity of “Kern County Citizens for Responsible Solar?” Construction trade unions, working under another unincorporated front group called California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE). A Kern County official bluntly revealed the true agenda of this fake organization at the subsequent April 12, 2016 meeting of the Kern County Board of Supervisors:
“The primary opposition to this project has been from law firms representing labor unions who have requested First Solar sign a Project Labor Agreement.”
The Planning Commission unanimously recommended county approval of the project despite the newly-submitted union objections. After postponing a Board of Supervisors hearing originally scheduled for March 15, county staff refined the Environmental Impact Report to address the new set of objections. The Kern County Board of Supervisors considered final approval of the Willow Springs Solar Project on April 12.
For Kern County officials, the morning of April 12 began as expected, with 31 pages of fresh objections from the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph and Cardozo. But this time there was blowback: as reported later that day to the Board of Supervisors, “a variety of entities” had also submitted letters “taking issue” with how unions use the California Environmental Quality Act as leverage to squeeze Project Labor Agreements out of solar energy developers. The letters documenting the practice can be read via the links below:
These letters did not shame Kern County Citizens for Responsible Solar. A lawyer for Adams Broadwell Joseph and Cardozo spoke at the Board of Supervisors on their behalf and objected to alleged failures of the Final Environmental Impact Report to “disclose” things.
Of course, the REAL lack of disclosure was the true identity of “Kern County Citizens for Responsible Solar” and its ulterior motives. But everyone knew what was happening. A representative of First Solar openly told the Board of Supervisors that it had not concluded negotiations on a Project Labor Agreement.
Following that statement, an official with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union No. 428 in Bakersfield claimed that since 2013 the union had signed Project Labor Agreements with First Solar, 8minuteenergy, Recurrent Energy, SunPower, and Sun Edison for construction of solar photovoltaic power plants in Kern County. Apparently he suspected that the surging unemployment of Kern County construction workers (caused by cutbacks in the petrochemical industry) was encouraging solar companies to be bolder about resisting union demands for Project Labor Agreements.
In the end, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to approve the Willow Springs Solar Project. Unions now have the opportunity to use the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to challenge the board’s decision in court.
How can the State of California protect the environment while discouraging parties from brazenly abusing environmental laws to extract economic concessions from public and private developers? State Senator John Moorlach has a solution based on the concepts of openness and transparency. He has introduced Senate Bill 1248, which would require a plaintiff or petitioner in a CEQA action to disclose information about parties that provide more than $100 to fund the action. It would also require the plaintiff or petitioner to disclose the financial or business interest in the project for those parties that provide more than $100 to fund the action. See Senate Bill 1248.
With Senate Bill 1248 enacted as law, Kern County Citizens for Responsible Solar, community champions of the environment, would acquire a new identity: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, demanding a Project Labor Agreement.
Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.