Defeating the Puente Power Plant
A legacy of environmental injustice
For generations, all of Ventura County’s power plants have been concentrated in Oxnard. For decades, energy needs for the region stretching from Simi Valley to Santa Barbara have been met by making the same decision over and over: building large fossil fuel power plants in Oxnard, the largest community of color in the region. Oxnard is over 200,000 people, approximately 85% people of color, with one in four children living in poverty and one in five residents lacking health coverage. Many Oxnard neighborhoods are above the 90th percentile in asthma rates in the state of California, resulting from the heavy industrial pollution and agricultural pesticides in the area. Oxnard’s beaches are lined with smokestacks, with more power plants on its coastline than any other city in California. Two of the three gas plants were run by NRG, a multibillion dollar corporation and the largest operator of power plants in the United States. When NRG proposed to build a new polluting peaker plant, calling it the Puente project, Oxnard residents organized to fight back.
Oxnard fights back against the Puente project
From 2014-2018, thousands of Oxnard residents were involved in the struggle to stop the Puente power plant. Oxnard residents knocked door to door collecting petitions, mobilized to city council meetings, lobbied state legislators, traveled to speak to regulators in San Francisco and Sacramento, and turned out hundreds of people to fill the seats at countless hearings in Oxnard. Above all, this fight was led by youth, particularly young Latina women from Oxnard who were on the front lines of speaking out against the project. Because of the groundswell of community outcry, every level of Oxnard’s elected representatives opposed the project, including the unanimous voice of the city council led by Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Ramirez, County Supervisor John Zaragoza, State Assemblywoman Monique Limon, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, and Congresswoman Julia Brownley. Yet despite Oxnard residents expressing their democratic voice in every way possible, the Puente project rolled forward, as the California Energy Commission had the power to override any local decisionmaking to place a power plant in Oxnard.
It was widely seen as a lost cause by experts and news media, who saw little chance in this working-class immigrant community defeating the corporate giant in an arena where power plants are rarely rejected. Many Oxnard residents were close to giving up hope, and felt that they had no choice but to take more drastic action.
A turning point
In January of 2017, Oxnard youth led a bold act of civil disobedience, shutting down a California Energy Commission meeting, chanting “Clean Air for Oxnard!” The disruption brought statewide and even national attention to the fight. The LA Times exposed that the state actually had an oversupply of dirty power, while energy experts pointed to the falling cost of battery storage as a low-cost and reliable alternative to polluting peaker plants. Eight state senators, including California Senate President De Leon signed on to a letter calling for the Energy Commission to put the project on pause and take a closer look at the community’s concerns. The state’s electricity grid operator, CAISO, offered to conduct a study on whether the power plant could viably be replaced by renewable energy alternatives. Oxnard residents pushed the California Energy Commission to commission the study, and when the results came out in August, it showed several possible clean alternatives to the gas-fired Puente project.
Keeping Santa Paula and Oxnard unified against dirty energy
Meanwhile, seeing the Oxnard community’s staunch opposition to another gas-fired power plant, a competing energy company called Calpine had proposed an alternative project: the Mission Rock Energy Center, just as polluting, but in neighboring Santa Paula. Santa Paula is a smaller and more rural community, with an 80% Latino population and even lower median income than Oxnard. The two companies attempted to pit the communities of Oxnard and Santa Paula against each other. But with longstanding organizing in both communities, CAUSE worked to keep them both united against any new dirty power plant. We would only accept clean energy. Santa Paula residents showed their resistance by leading a spontaneous mass walkout of the California Energy Commission hearing in their town, because of its lack of adequate Spanish interpretation and seating for local residents.
Clean air for Oxnard
Seeing the community’s steadfast resistance, growing criticism from statewide policymakers, and the mounting evidence that better alternatives were possible, the Energy Commission began to reconsider the project. In November of 2017, the two presiding Energy Commissioners, Karen Douglas and Janea Scott, issued a letter saying they intended to propose rejection of the Puente project due to significant negative impacts to the Oxnard community, and that Southern California Edison should begin looking for alternatives. This was a precedent-setting victory that turned the tide of the state’s energy system, causing communities across the state to reconsider plans to build fossil fuel power plants, looking to Oxnard as an example. Few had believed it was possible for this small working-class immigrant community to defeat one of the world’s largest energy giants. But Oxnard showed what was possible, its powerful organized community resistance leading the way to a clean energy future.
Building clean energy alternatives
SoCal Edison opened up a new process to allow companies to submit alternatives to the Puente project. The process drew interest from clean energy developers across the nation, eager to be part of this precedent-setting victory. Edison announced their plans to replace the Puente plant with a new transmission line and battery storage projects throughout the region. In particular, a 100 megawatt battery project by Strata Solar would be built in Oxnard, becoming one of the largest battery storage facilities in the world. With California’s booming supply of cheap solar power, the growing availability of affordable batteries has made it cost effective to replace even large scale fossil fuel power plants with reliable clean power throughout the day.
Removing old power plants and restoring Oxnard’s coast
The closing of the two largest power plants on Oxnard’s coast creates a historic opportunity to restore the city’s beaches to become more healthy and accessible to local residents. Unfortunately, NRG carried out their threat to abandon their old plants to rust on the beach if they weren’t given permission to build a new one. NRG spun off ownership of the old Mandalay and Ormond Beach power plants into a subsidiary company called GenOn, which was put into bankruptcy. Cleanup costs are expected to be in the tens of millions, which are now being pushed on to the public after decades of private profits for corporate shareholders. Oxnard has a long history of being treated as a dumping ground by irresponsible corporations like Halaco that have abandoned responsibility for the cleanup of their industrial facilities. The community will continue to explore different options for removing the abandoned plants and restoring our beautiful coastline for local families to enjoy. In particular, the city is attracting tens of millions of dollars in public and private investment to restore the Ormond Beach Wetlands in South Oxnard, which are the largest remaining coastal wetlands in Southern California and one of the most important environmental restoration projects in the state. Oxnard has a vision of a coast that is open to, cared for, and shared by its people. Although the victory isn’t complete, we’re now one step closer to that vision.
What’s next for environmental justice in our community?
Oxnard still has a long way to go in our struggle for environmental justice, from the intensive use of fumigant pesticides in the agricultural fields surrounding the city to the growing number of heavy duty diesel trucks on Oxnard’s streets carrying shipments from the port. Removing the toxic sites from our coast and restoring it for public access will be an ongoing effort for years ahead. But once again, Oxnard has sent a message to powerful corporations hoping to exploit our community that we will fight for the value of our families’ health and our children’s lives. And not only will we beat the odds through the power of our organized community, we will lead the way to the future our world needs.