The city of Oxnard in Ventura County has taken tentative steps to block a proposed power plant in the coastal zone. Oxnard's developing debate over how to incorporate concerns about newly-identified risks into longstanding planning processes is one of the first in California, but it’s unlikely to be the last.
California law requires state, county, and local agencies to consider implications of a changing climate in planning. Along the coast, those impacts include sea level rise and storm surges that penetrate further inland.
In Oxnard, those concerns are getting a hearing now because of another environmental regulation. To protect the health of the near-shore ecosytem, California law is forcing the retirement of some power plants that use sea water to cool their equipment.
NRG Energy operates two legacy natural gas generating stations in Ventura County. Rather than update cooling towers at one of the stations, the company has applied to build a smaller newer power plant alongside the old one.
“What we are proposing is a state of the art clean burning natural gas plant that will greatly reduce visual impact through demolition of the current facility and result in an overall improved environmental footprint,” says Dave Knox, a spokesman for NRG.
That footprint would be about 500 yards from the ocean at high tide, says Carmen Ramirez, Oxnard’s Mayor Pro Tem.
“These kinds of facilities would never be allowed on the coast in Santa Barbara, or Malibu, or even Ventura,” she says. “And we want to change.”
Oxnard voted last week to implement a 45-day moratorium on power-plant development. It’s not just how a power plant looks along the coast - Ramirez and other Oxnard officials argue that power plants close to the ocean are increasingly and significantly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and rising sea levels.
That’s an unusual argument from local officials. The Nature Conservancy helped them make it, according to the nonprofit’s Lily Verdone. She says the Nature Conservancy has built a map of the Ventura coastline that shows the risks of climate impacts including storm surges.
“Everything that the city needed to inform their local coastal planning process, we added to the science modeling,” Verdone says.
The new moratorium isn’t binding. Oxnard city leaders must hold another public hearing and vote within 45 days in order to extend it. And this type of ban can only, at maximum, remain in place for 2 years. But Ramirez says she hopes it can buy the city time to update its 30-year-old coastal plan to take into account scientific modeling for potential floods.
“If you want the grid to be safe and not vulnerable, to the kinds of flooding that is happening now and will occur with more severe storms, you want to get all these critical facilities off the coast,” Ramirez says. “And that’s what this is about.”
NRG counters that it is already prepared to manage the risks along the coastal zone for its proposed plant. “We do not believe this to be a barrier to our ability to successfully license a project,” Knox says. He adds that “working with the city is the best way to come to a solution that is a win-win for all.”
But even if Oxnard outlaws power plants next to the ocean, the final word on NRG’s proposal may lie with the California Energy Commission. State regulators possess some power to override local rules and license power plants rated larger than 50 MW, and those regulators will conduct their own permit investigation. And California law means they too will be taking into account climate change.