Court Sets Aside Approval of Gas Plant in Oakley

CPUC reined in by TURN victory

Plans to build a natural gas power plant in East Contra Costa County have hit another snag.

A state appeals court has annulled the 2010 approval of Pacific Gas & Electric’s application to establish a new natural gas power plant in Oakley.

The 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco sided with consumer advocacy group The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, in a 3-0 ruling last week, saying the state’s Public Utilities Commission acted unlawfully in hastily approving the 586-megawatt power plant.

Surprised by news of the court’s decision, Oakley Mayor Kevin Romick expressed irritation over this latest setback.

“It’s been going on for such a long time. We thought this would be the last nuisance (appeal) to get through, and we could start the project,” he said.

But TURN argued that at the very least it should have had the chance to comment on the proposed project when it came before the PUC again in 2010.

The state agency denied PG&E’s application in July 2010 because it wanted to limit the amount of electricity plants were generating, having determined that ratepayers didn’t need that much.

PG&E came back a month later with a new request to extend the buildout date from 2014 to 2016 in hopes that by then there would be sufficient demand for the additional electricity.

In December 2010, the PUC gave it the green light.

“The point here is that (the PUC) wanted to rush it through,” said TURN’s communications director, Mindy Spatt, noting that PG&E simply changed the startup date on its original application.

The court agreed, saying the commission should have required the utility to undergo the entire application process again.

“The Commission had become so enamored of the project, it was willing to dispense with the procedural safeguards established by its rules and the statutes in order ‘to achieve its preferred outcome,’ ” read the March 16 decision.

The implications of the court’s ruling are unclear at this point.

PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said the utility is reviewing the court’s ruling and considering its next step.

Similarly, a PUC spokesman said the agency’s legal team is contemplating its next move. He declined to comment on the ruling itself.

Romick and City Manager Bryan Montgomery later said they don’t know what the court’s implications are for Oakley, though the answer could come in a couple of weeks.

Though their role is minimal, Oakley leaders support the project for the millions in annual unitary tax and hundreds of construction jobs it could provide.

Oakley’s involvement in the power plant business with Radback Energy dates back to 2008, when the Danville-based company expressed tentative interest with DuPont in building such a facility at its old property.

Despite the back-and-forth with appeals and reversals of decisions over the next several years, city officials by last summer believed construction soon would start and held a groundbreaking ceremony in July.

Since then, however, only minimal grading work has been done at the site, which consists of 22 acres of industrial property near the Antioch Bridge on Bridgehead Road.

DuPont manufactured a gasoline additive and refrigeration coolants there for just over four decades until it closed in 1997.

PG&E plans to buy that property along with the plant from Radback once it’s up and running.

The builder has estimated that the project would generate 730 construction jobs.

At peak operation during the summer, the plant would produce enough electricity to keep lights and appliances on in roughly 500,000 homes.

Radback officials did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.