An article in today’s Los Angeles Times (“Labor Coalition’s Tactics on Renewable Energy Projects Are Criticized” February 5, 2011) exposes how a union front group called California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) has exploited environmental laws to block permits for solar thermal power plants until the developers sign project labor agreements. Objecting to this environmental permit extortion (also known as “greenmail”) of California Unions for Reliable Energy are representatives of the Carpenters, Laborers, and Operating Engineers unions, construction trade unions that are getting short shrift in the Project Labor Agreements that renewable energy developers are signing with the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.
ABC of California has repeatedly identified California Unions for Reliable Energy and certain construction unions, particularly the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), as the biggest obstacles to the future of renewable energy and “green jobs” in California. CURE and the IBEW repeatedly use the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and federal environmental laws to delay projects until they win costly project labor agreements or other conditions that make the green projects economically unfeasible.
California Unions for Reliable Energy, represented by the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo, is able to get away with this tactic under current state law. In December 1997, the developer of the High Desert Power Plant in Kern County challenged the petition of California Unions for Reliable Energy to intervene in the permitting process for the power plant at the California Energy Commission. The Commission determined that CURE had fulfilled the state’s legal requirements to be an intervenor. Of course, CURE claimed that its interest in the power plant was all about saving the environment.
The most direct and effective way to stop the misuse of California Environmental Quality Act (California Public Resources Code Sections 21000-21177) is to amend the law to prohibit the “greenmail” behavior. Two attempts in the California State Legislature to do this have failed because Democrats defeated the bills in committee:
2008 – Bill to Make Greenmail a Crime Fails to Pass Senate Committee
Associated Builders and Contractors of California was part of a large coalition of construction groups – representing union and non-union contractors as well as developers – in support of Senate Bill 1631. Authored by Senator Dick Ackerman (R) on behalf of Associated General Contractors (AGC), this bill would have created a misdemeanor crime for any person who filed or threatened to file an environmental objection to a public works project in order to obtain or extract money or other thing of value from the person. Under the definition of “public works” in Labor Code Section 1720, applicable projects would have included numerous private projects that get public subsidies or other public benefits.
Opponents of the bill included various umbrella groups for construction unions, including the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. The bill failed in the Senate
Government Organization Committee on April 15, 2008 on a 5-5 party line vote, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.
2005 – ABC’s Bill to Squash Greenmail Fails in Senate Committee
ABC of California continued its legislative fight against “greenmail” targeted at power plant developers, in which the unions block licensing of power plants on environmental grounds until the developer agrees to sign a PLA. On April 19, 2005 the Senate Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee considered Senate Bill 628, a bill sponsored by ABC of California and introduced by Senator Bob Dutton (R-Riverside). The bill would have required the California Energy Commission (CEC) to allow parties to present testimony about alleged misuse of its licensing procedures to exert economic pressure on a party to enter into a labor agreement. It also would have required the CEC to take certain steps to maintain its neutrality in labor disputes, including the exclusion of parties from participating in the siting process, restricting the rights of parties in that process, and reducing the weight of the participation of a party in that process.
Committee Chairwoman Martha Escutia (D-Montebello) spent more than 20 minutes on discussion of the bill, including asking a representative of the CEC to speak on the matter. The Riverside Chamber of Commerce supported the bill, recognizing that greenmail was delaying Riverside’s proposed municipal power plant. An attorney for CURE and union lobbyists testified against the bill and provided some information that perhaps could be used in future litigation against greenmail. Unions and some environmental groups opposed the bill, and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California submitted an eight-page letter of opposition. The bill was defeated in a party-line vote.
Perhaps 2011 will be a different year in the California State Legislature. How long will the Democrats allow certain construction unions to jeopardize the construction of solar energy generation facilities? For media inquiries about this topic, contact ABC of California