Citing Sea Level Rise, California City Places Moratorium On Power Plant Plans

CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant, File

This Monday Nov. 3,2008 file photo shows one of Pacific Gas and Electric's Diablo Canyon Power Plant's nuclear reactors in Avila Beach on California's central coast.

A Southern California city is fighting plans for a new coastal power plant, saying sea level rise poses too high a risk for a plant located so close to the ocean.

This month, the City Council of Oxnard, California approved a moratorium on plans to build a new natural gas plant at a site about 500 yards from the ocean at high tide. The City Council is worried that sea level rise poses too high a threat to the power plant, which was proposed as a result of a California law that’s forcing the state’s power plants that use sea water for cooling to retire, in the hopes of better protecting the marine ecosystem. The new power plant would be built next to a larger, older one that uses sea water for cooling, and its construction would allow NRG Energy, the company in charge of both the proposed and old plants, to avoid updating the older power plant’s cooling systems or immediately demolishing it to comply with the law.

But the Oxnard City Council isn’t keen on a new power plant being built so close to the coast. Earlier this month, it unanimously approved a 45-day moratorium on coastal power plant construction, a ban that can be extended to up to two years if the council continues to vote in favor of it. California law requires that local, county, and state officials take climate climate change impacts into account when planning new development, and with climate change’s impact in mind, the City Council agreed that building a power plant close to the coast wasn’t worth it.

Carmen Ramirez, Oxnard’s Mayor Pro Tem, told ThinkProgress that though the City Council doesn’t ultimately decide the fate of the power plant, the moratorium will show the California Energy Commission, which does have authority over the power plant’s future and must take the desires of Oxnard into account when making its decision, that the city doesn’t want another power plant on its coast. Sea level rise is already having an impact on the city’s coastlines, she said, and it’s not a smart business move to put another power plant in the path of sea level rise.

“Why in the world would anyone want to have a critical electrical facility that produces power for the entire region — not just Oxnard — within the coastal flooding zone?” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Ramirez cited updated maps created for the region by the Nature Conservancy as proof that sea level rise poses too high a risk for power plant development on the coast. She said that even though NRG Energy doesn’t have an exact location for the plant yet, the maps show that the general region in which the plant would be located will be subject to sea level rise — and the increased tidal flooding and storm surge that comes along with it — in the coming decades. Already, the maps show that the power plants currently located on Ventura County’s coast are vulnerable to inundation from a large storm.

“We have to really think about where we put these structures,” Ramirez said. “When we put a hospital, an airport, a power plant, a wastewater treatment plant on the coast and then it’s subject to the assault of the waves and salt air, that costs the public. That costs the taxpayer.”

Lily Verdone, Project Director for the Ventura County sea level rise projection maps for the Nature Conservancy, told ThinkProgress that Oxnard is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise because it’s a large, low-lying region that has a range of infrastructure built close to the coast.

“Building critical infrastructure, like power plants, in increasingly impacted coastal flood zones is not smart planning decision, now or in the future,” Verdone said in an email. “There’s a place for critical infrastructure and it’s not in areas that will be threatened by sea level rise and flooding.”

But Ramirez said that she personally doesn’t want the new natural gas plant to be built at all, on the coast or off it. Oxnard already has more coastal power plants than any other California city, she said. The city’s socioeconomic makeup — mostly lower-income, working-class Hispanic residents — makes it an easy target for these power plant proposals, but Ramirez vowed to fight to get this one at least moved off the coast. She said the City Council plans on extending the moratorium once the 45 days are up, and that it could last up to two years. That will give the city enough time, she hopes, to update its local coastal plan with sea level rise projections in order to make the best case possible to the California Energy Commission against the new power plant.