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January 17, 2014

Clean Energy Caravan Confronts California Commission

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Late last month, more than 75 citizen activists and community organizers from Southern California rode on two buses through the night to give public testimony before the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco on why the CPUC should not authorize plans to build new natural gas power plants in Southern California to replace the retired San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station.

"The fact that all the hearings took place in San Francisco, glaringly missing outreach and input from Southern Californians, is a troubling factor given the health impacts and economic costs that new natural gas plants would have in the region," says Michael Sarmiento, an organizer with the Sierra Club's My Generation campaign to promote local clean energy. That's Sarmiento at microphone, below.

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Participants in the hearing included volunteers with the Club's My Generation campaign as well as representatives from ally organizations including the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.

Jasmin-Vargas"We drove through the night from L.A. so we could start our day early," says Jasmin Vargas, at left, of the Club's Beyond Coal campaign in Los Angeles. San Francisco-based staffer Sarah Matsumoto greeted the Southern California contingent at 6:00 a.m. and let them into Club headquarters so they could prepare for the day ahead.

Sarmiento facilitated in the Club's main conference room as the eight volunteers who would be giving testimony prepared their comments. "The room was abuzz with high school students, parents, grandmas, and children whizzing around, and it was impossible not to be struck by the diversity in the room," recalls Vargas. "One volunteer pointed out that it was inspiring to see a photograph on the wall of recent Sierra Club President Allison Chin, the lone woman of color to hold that position." (Chin has served two terms, from 2008-10 and 2012-13.)

"The hearing started promptly at 9:30 and we were all accounted for, ready to support the volunteers providing their testimonials," Vargas says. "Speakers had two minutes each to compel the commissioners to be accountable to the 30 activists in front of them and the 45 high school students in the overflow room. They called for a clean-energy future, demanded a chance to be heard in their own communities, and urged the Commission to halt any proposed new gas plant construction and deal with pollution and environmental injustice in communities of color."

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After the hearing, a rally with mock solar panels and windmills and a press conference organized by the Sierra Club was held on the steps of the State Building, emceed by Sarmiento. Here's a sampling of what some of the speakers had to say:

"It is outrageous that community members from Southern California had to bus up here through the night to make our voices heard. Holding hearings 500 miles away from the people being affected by polluting new gas plants is simply unacceptable." - Opamaggio Casciani, Riverside resident (That's Casciani in green shirt, above.)

"New natural gas plants will create even more greenhouse gases and undermine California's climate mitigation efforts. Physicians and other health care professionals are already experiencing the impacts of climate change here in California, with increases in heat-related illness and respiratory diseases appearing in our state. We have a responsibility to protect the health of our communities. Clean energy alternatives must be considered a top priority." - Sapna Thottahil, Physicians for Social Responsibility

"Contrary to what the gas industry's publicity machine says, building more gas plants will only make air pollution worse in our communities. Southern California already suffers from some of the dirtiest air in the nation. Now we're talking about adding more pollution on top of it?" - Robert Cabrales, Communities for a Better Environment

"Instead of more polluting gas plants, we should be leading the nation in clean energy. We have all the solutions at our fingertips to move away from dirty fuels. Why is the state doubling down on dirty energy?"- Strela Cervas, California Alliance for Environmental Justice

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That's Cervas, above, and Thottahil, below at right, at the rally outside CPUC's offices.

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The impact of the event was immediate, Sarmiento says. "After the event we received an email from CPUC staff, notifying us that they are interested in having a meeting in Southern California in early 2014. We were able to show the CPUC that they need to be accountable to the community and make decisions that serve the community interest, not just big utility companies. We hope to continue building a base of volunteers who can keep the CPUC accountable and create a process where the public can participate in making these important decisions around their energy needs."

Vargas is excited and guardedly optimistic that the CPUC will agree to turn away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy in California. A poll released this month shows that a majority of utility customers in Orange and San Diego Counties favor green energy to replace nuclear power.

"As we shut down San Onofre and double down on solar and wind energy, our community leaders are rising to the occasion," she says. "Organized people can take on organized power and their entrenched interest in fossil fuels, economic inequality, and manufactured scarcity. History demands this from us; to keep true to the struggles of heroes from the civil rights movement, environmental movement, and the global movement for human rights. An organized demand for climate action and an organized global movement will change the course of history. I'm fired, fired, fired up!"

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