I joined activists and community members recently as we celebrated the latest hard-won battle against filthy fossil fuels in California, as the sun set over the Oxnard beach on a windy evening. Behind us stood the polluting power plant that would soon be retired - the same location of a proposed new plant that will never be built. It was the perfect place to celebrate the demise of what would have been the fourth power plant on Oxnard’s coast.
Following the power crisis of the late 1990s, during which Enron and other companies notoriously manipulated gas supplies to drive up prices, California regulators allowed plant operators to over-build. Twenty years later, the state has more polluting gas-fired plants than it needs, while the price of clean, renewable energy is dropping. Meanwhile, the political cost of building new power plants is rising, thanks to us.
The defeat of the Oxnard plant is part of a turning tide against gas-fired power in California. Last year, state regulators put all permits for new or upgraded plants on hold, while ordering a review of cheaper, cleaner renewable alternatives. Shortly thereafter, the energy giant NRG abandoned plans to rebuild four plants, including Oxnard’s.
It took four long years of organizing, but Oxnard families refused to let their city continue to be a sacrifice zone for polluting industries. A working-class, majority-Latino community, Oxnard has three power plants along its shoreline - more than any other city on the California coast. The latest proposal for a fourth plant, by NRG (the largest power plant operator in the county) was the last straw for many.
Four years ago, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) began a long process of evaluating NRG’s proposal. In response, community members and a coalition of organizations including Food & Water Watch built political opposition to the project locally and statewide. Young people, community leaders and volunteers made trip after trip to lobby the CPUC and elected officials eight hours north in San Francisco.
Our local coalition and youth leaders packed hearing after hearing, demanding the commission deny the project. They argued against the continuing legacy of environmental racism in the extended use of Oxnard as a sacrifice zone. It was an argument CPUC couldn't deny. But instead of killing the proposal, CPUC passed the buck, allowing the California Energy Commission (CEC) to make the final ruling on the power plant.
Stepping up our tactics
With a decision still pending by early 2017, our coalition - inspired by the remarkable protests against fossil fuel projects playing out at Standing Rock and elsewhere - decided to escalate our tactics of peaceful resistance.
First, we mobilized to take over a CEC hearing, to ensure that our voices were heard loud and clear. The decision to engage in civil disobedience was not taken lightly, but we felt all other options were exhausted. I joined the Oxnard youth as we stood with locked arms surrounding the podium to make sure we had control of the meeting, and to force the commissioners to listen. The meeting disruption garnered statewide media attention and reinvigorated the community.
Later in the year, a new, required renewable energy feasibility study dealt another blow to NRG’s ill-advised plan. The study indicated plenty of clean, renewable energy available to meet growing demand in the region. The writing was on the wall. In a last ditch effort to keep its project alive for future consideration, NRG requested a temporary suspension of the proposal last October. It has not been revisited since. In the meantime, new renewable energy contacts are being filled regularly.
Finally, we feel confident in declaring victory! As I spoke at a celebratory party recently, holding my 9-month-old daughter, Esperanza, I couldn’t help to think about how much had changed since the fight first started in 2014. I had started out as a transplant in a new, unfamiliar community. Now, after years of fighting alongside the residents on this and many other environmental justice issues, I feel securely at home. The greatest lesson from it all, for me: Let the youth lead. This is their future and their air, and their water we are deciding on. They were the heart and soul of this fight.
As we toast our victory, we are still fighting to get NRG to remove their crumbling decommissioned power plants from our beaches. And we have a huge fight against the expansion of tar sands oil drilling in the Oxnard area, as we oppose 200 proposed steam-fracking wells near agricultural fields and residential areas. We were all made stronger and more united by the fight against the NRG power plant, as we continue to fight the oil operators that seek to exploit our community. We’ll never give up.