ORIGINAL STORY (4:53 p.m. on Nov. 14, 2012):
Tears were shed, laughs were shared, activists in animal costumes required translators, and Pacific Gas & Electric reps left Santa Monica empty handed.
As recommended by its staff, the California Coastal Commission put the final nail in the coffin for PG&E’s controversial plan for high-energy, three-dimensional studies off the Central Coast—at least for this year.
On Nov. 14, following hours of emotional—and sometimes hilarious—pleas from the public, the 12-voting member commission unanimously denied the utility the coastal development permit it needed to access the coastal waters for the surveys.
The decision effectively kills the project’s chances of blasting off this calendar year, but the commission emphasized that it had no direction to give PG&E on how to proceed from here.
It was a lop-sided affair, with the hundreds in attendance burning holes in the back of Mark Krauss, PG&E’s director of state agency relations, who had the unforgiving task of trying to convince enough commissioners on the utilities to override its staff’s recommendation.
“If you lived near a nuclear plant, wouldn’t you want more certainty?” Krauss asked the commission during his presentation. “Being forced to do this [testing], we are trying to mitigate things as much as possible.”
The hearing attracted a few hundred activists and concerned citizens from across the state, but also plenty of local faces, including SLO County District Two Supervisor Bruce Gibson; Mandy Davis, president of the C.O.A.S.T. Alliance; President of the Port San Luis Commercial Fishermen Association David Kirk; Andrew Christie, executive director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club; Avila Beach Community Services District board president Peter Kelley; and Morro Bay City Manager Andrea Lueker.
Lueker said the city’s concerns ranged from impacts to wildlife to effects on the commercial fishing industry and the local economy.
“The city strongly believes these have not been taken into account,” she said.
Jeremiah O’Brien, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Association, which said it had tried for months to bring PG&E to the table to discuss compensation to the fishing community, said the association had just a day prior established—against its will—a memorandum of understanding with PG&E, though he didn’t disclose a compensation amount.
“We are concerned solely for the resource,” O’Brien told the commissioners. “Although there is an MOU with PG&E, we signed it because we were going to be put instantly out of business and we felt under the gun.”
One speaker in a Greenpeace T-shirt wondered aloud—given the massive anti-PG&E turnout—if consumer advocate Erin Brockovich was in the audience.
Upon completion of the 4 1/2 hours of public comment, Coastal Planner Cassidy Teufel explained that, although there are currently 25 similar surveying projects taking place around the globe, the Central Coast project was different. He said staff found PG&E’s project uncharacteristically close to shore, the planned testing tracks too dense, and the potential for harm to a localized population of wildlife with nowhere else to go—namely, the Morro Bay harbor porpoise.
Additionally, staffers said, PG&E’s project is different because of their involvement in the evaluation process of the seismic data.
“Everyone agrees that we’ve been rushed on this,” said Coastal Planner Alison Dettmer. “All of these plans need more time for refinement.”
When all was said and done, Coastal Planner Charles Lester said the project simply didn’t fit the parameters of the California Coastal Act, the commission’s guiding legislation, nor did it meet an “overriding consideration” requirement, which would have allowed for environmental impacts if it they were in the name of greater health and safety.
“I personally believe the state is asking the wrong question,” said Commission Chair Mary Shallenberger. “There are many reasons we shouldn’t have nuclear plants on our coast. That’s the question we should be asking. … But for [the commission], the question is [whether] PG&E provided us with enough information to move forward. And I don’t feel they have.”
As of press time, it was unclear if any other state or federal agencies will discuss the seismic project sans a coastal development permit.
A PG&E spokesman could not be reached for comment on the commission’s decision as of press time. ∆
UPDATE: (11:23 a.m. on Nov. 15, 2012) PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones issued the following statement in regards to the Coastal Commission decision:
“PG&E put forth a sound and comprehensive plan to conduct this research, which was guided by seismic experts, state and federal agencies and our commitment to performing the work in an environmentally responsible manner. While we are disappointed with the decision, we appreciate the work of the Commission staff and members in considering this seismic study proposal.
“As part of our strong commitment to seismic safety, PG&E continually studies earthquake faults in the region of Diablo Canyon and seismic events around the world to ensure the safety of the facility. The proposed survey is only one component of our larger, multi-layered seismic research program through which we recently completed several advanced onshore and offshore studies to further our knowledge of the region’s complex geology. We will focus on gathering and interpreting this recently collected data as we evaluate the Commission’s decision to determine how to proceed with additional seismic data collection efforts.” ∆