News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

The Power of CEQA: Gas Plant Delayed in Smoggy Inland Empire

This now-shuttered gas-fired plant at Huntington Beach won't be replaced by one in Rancho Cucamonga anytime soon | Photo: Haymarket Rebel/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A proposed natural-gas-fired power plant that would be built in Rancho Cucamonga has been postponed again, with hearings on the proposal deferred until at least June 2014. The San Gabriel Generating Station project, which would generate 656 megawatts of electrical power when completed, has been suspended since 2010 as its owners haven't been able to get the legal permission to add to the Inland Empire's air pollution burden.

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The San Gabriel plant would be built mainly on the site of the existing Etiwanda Generating Station in Rancho Cucamonga. The project was first proposed in 2007 by Reliant Energy, which bought the half-century-old Etiwanda plant from Southern California Edison in 1998. After a series of mergers, buyouts, and division sales over the years, the project -- as well as most of what was Reliant -- is now owned by NRG Energy.

When first proposed, the San Gabriel Power Plant was scheduled to go online in 2010. However, the project owners found it was harder than they expected to obtain the right to emit the air pollutants usually produced by gas-fired plants into the already overburdened South Coast airshed. Reliant estimated that the plant would emit a few hundred tons of smog-forming chemicals, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide, and as much as a half a ton of lead into the air each year.

in order to get legal clearance to release those emissions, Reliant planned to use "offset credits" offered by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). But in 2008, in the course of ruling on a lawsuit filed by a number of groups (Natural Resources Defense Council, Communities for a Better Environment, Coalition for a Safe Environment, and California Communities Against Toxics), a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge ended the use of those offset credits for large industrial polluters, including power plants. Reliant asked the California Energy Commission (CEC) to suspend hearings on the project in 2009, and it's asked that that suspension be extended each year since then, including last month. The CEC approved the new extension on May 30.

For the first few years of the project's suspension, Reliant expressed hope that the SCAQMD would seek to allow emissions credits for power plants, which would clear the way for construction of the San Gabriel plant. SCAQMD hasn't done so, perhaps because it would need to engage in review of said policy under the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), so NRG is now hoping to pick up credits by closing more of the aging Etiwanda plant instead.

Using offset credits from out of the SCAQMD air basin is problematic, of course: trading reductions elsewhere for the right to pollute Southern California's air merely shifts the burden of the pollution. And it's not like the San Bernardino Valley can afford more smog and other pollutants in its already filthy air. More evidence that the citizen lawsuit process and CEQA do actually protect the respiratory health of California's residents.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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