Opinion

After Harvey and Irma, why put a power plant on the California coast?

The California Energy Commission is considering this coastal site for a proposed gas power plant in Oxnard. Environmental groups and the city oppose it, citing potential greenhouse gas pollution and the site’s vulnerability to sea level rise.
The California Energy Commission is considering this coastal site for a proposed gas power plant in Oxnard. Environmental groups and the city oppose it, citing potential greenhouse gas pollution and the site’s vulnerability to sea level rise. Earthjustice

Just days ago, Hurricane Harvey battered Texas, flooding communities and the state’s infrastructure. Refineries, industrial sites, and the nation’s largest nuclear energy plant all faced heavy floodwaters. It was one of the clearest warnings we’ll get about the risks of building infrastructure in coastal areas threatened by increasingly severe storms and sea level rise.

And yet, right here in California we are about to cover our eyes and ears and make the wrong choice. The California Energy Commission is considering approving a polluting gas power plant on the Central Coast in Oxnard. The proposed plant, dubbed “Puente,” is strongly opposed by the city of Oxnard and environmental and environmental justice groups due to its exacerbation of environmental injustice, vulnerability to coastal flooding from sea level rise, and divergence from California’s climate goals.

Puente is at great risk of flooding. But the staff of the California Energy Commission has so far declined to face reality. In their staff report, they rely on a model that grossly under-predicts observed flooding documented in the area during a recent storm, raising serious questions about its accuracy. And that doesn’t even take into account the expected sea level rise on California’s coast caused by climate change. Let’s not forget that this shortsighted project is supposed to run for the next 40 years.

Both the California Coastal Commission and the Coastal Conservancy have urged against locating a new power plant on Oxnard’s beach, finding “the proposed plant would site a new facility in an area that is subject to flooding, tsunami and storm surge risk with inadequate margin of safety given the uncertainties presented by sea level rise and climate change.” We should heed their words.

The Puente natural gas power plant is not just unneeded and unwanted in Oxnard, it’s bad for California. Natural gas combustion contributes to ozone and particulate matter pollution, worsening our dire air quality problems. And natural gas operations leak methane – a rapidly destructive climate hazard.

Furthermore, recent analysis by the state entity charged with maintaining grid reliability has shown that clean energy solutions are a viable alternative to meeting the region’s reliability need. It’s time for us to embrace safe, clean renewable energy in our state.

Now it’s decision time for the California Energy Commission. In coming months, commissioners will decide whether to give the community and city of Oxnard back a vital piece of its coast, and steer California away from a risky investment in polluting fossil fuel infrastructure right on the Golden State’s coastline.

This decision will affect not only the quality of life for Oxnard’s families, but also California’s climate goals. Will we make a true transition to a renewable energy grid for our air and our climate, or will we merely pay lip service to clean energy while digging ourselves deeper into a fossil fuel hole and further exposure to coastal flooding?

The California Energy Commission must steer California into a brighter energy future. Our coastline is a living treasure that belongs to all Californians, as is the right to clean air and a healthy climate.

Matt Vespa is a clean energy attorney on Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign. Carmen Ramírez is the Mayor Pro Tem of Oxnard. They can be contacted at and can be contacted at mvespa@earthjustice.org and carmen4oxnard@gmail.com.

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