Energy Politics in California: PG&E versus Chevron

Financial Justice Ideas and Issues

San Francisco After a day of meetings by chance I was invited to sit in as a guest for a while at a monthly dinner on Mission at La Corneta of an ad hoc group of seasoned labor activists and organizers.  After a while Mike Miller threw a topic on the table that everyone jumped to discuss:  “how did PG&E (the giant California electric utility) lose a ballot proposition when it outspent opponents 500 to 1?”

The back story seemed to be literally a power grab by PG&E disguised as an exercise in democracy.  PG&E wanted city governments to require a vote with 2/3rds majority for passage in order for any citizens in a jurisdiction to switch to public power in the future.  Hiding behind the democratic demand for a vote, similar to the constant refrain of the employee free choicers at the workplace, the company obviously thought it had a winner.  Clearly enough people saw through it, but why in this time of continued corporate ascendancy and the rule of money (one of the guys for example felt that Meg Whitman stood a good chance of simply buying the governor’s race since Jerry Brown’s stands were thus far impenetrable).  Another grabbing measure by auto insurance had also been defeated.

This is California so folks around the country never like to draw much from these races, but I think these old vets were onto some interesting questions.  Some of the politics might be local (a botched service change by PG&E beforehand where the ballot measure allowed some venting), but some of this reaction could also herald a grassroots conviction that if big companies want it, there’s always a wolf in the sheep’s clothing.

On the other hand Mike Parker, long time Labor Notes and displaced Detroiter still wearing the UAW colors, was animated in his transition to being a community organizer in Richmond, his home over recent years, which as always is in a death match with the mega-refinery run by Chevron on the edge of the Bay in that city.  The back story here was in some ways more complicated, and slick as oil when the perennially strapped City of Richmond finally took steps to get some fair taxation from the refinery.

Leslie Berliant writing in a blog at explains the issue best:

The city of Richmond sponsored a ballot measure that would slapped Chevron’s local refinery with a 10% utility user tax, similar to what city residents pay. In response, Chevron put together its own ballot initiative that put the city on the defensive. Chevron’s measure would cap the refinery’s utility user taxes at $20 million a year, but here’s the kicker: It would also allow all Richmond residents and businesses to apply for rebates of half of their utility user taxes, and exempt low income residents and seniors from paying the utility taxes altogether.

The city was sure it would lose big in the warring ballot initiatives and lose substantial tax revenue, so it chose to settle with Chevron in May. It agreed to pull its ballot measure if Chevron would agree to pay $20 million in taxes a year, with an additional $114 million spread out over the next 15 years. The city also agreed to back off on trying to slap a manufacturer’s tax on the refinery.

In response, Chevron pulled its ballot measure, having secured what it wanted.

Mike and his allies are loaded for bear so Chevron may have won the battle but not the war.   But next to PG&E they seem to be the sly foxes who understood that the “small people” in the inimitable words of the British Petroleum board chairman have to vote their self-interest too, and a rebate would feel sweet in a city of so many low-and-moderate income families.

It was great to hear seasoned warriors still girding up for critical battles.  This may not  be the same as unlimited money, but it proves we’re still dangerous in a fight and ready to step up when it counts, and so are many others.