The Green Energy Reality Show – Starring Labor Unions, Solar Developers & Environmental Groups

NYT ran a story on the front of the business section last week that dances around the question of whether labor unions are abusing their organizing potential and raising or modulating available environmental objections based on the level to which the developers commit to utilize union labor in renewable power projects.

According to the story, “As California moves to license dozens of huge solar power plants to meet the state’s renewable energy goals, some developers contend they are being pressured to sign agreements pledging to use union labor. If they refuse, they say, they can count on the union group to demand costly environmental studies and deliver hostile testimony at public hearings…If they commit at the outset to use union labor, they say, the environmental objections never materialize.”

However oblique that paragraph may be, it’s a pretty bold accusation. The implication is clear: The union action in question is heavy-handed at best and represents extortionist influence-peddling at worst.

It highlights some of the strange alliances that are forming in the clean energy world (i.e, the “blue-green” alliance between business and environmentalists). The flip side of the coin are some of the unlikely battle lines that have been drawn: renewable energy advocates against endangered species protectors is an increasingly common one.

The NYT story calls into question the bona fides of some of the organizations that are jumping into the fray, quoting Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club’s director of western renewable programs, ambivalently remarking that

It’s not a warm fuzzy thing they [California Unions for Reliable Energy] are doing; it’s a very self-interested thing they’re doing…[B]ut it has a large ancillary public benefit.”

For my money, the story is based on a terribly simplistic understanding of the political process. Somehow, in the public imagination and the mainstream media, where “lobbyist” has become our longest four-letter word, there is a perception that any kind of self-interested advocacy is immoral and potentially criminal.

Questioning the motives of anyone entering the energy debate on any side seems to me to be a very dicey business. Unions should – just as environmental groups are entitled to – support or oppose projects based on the benefit to their membership. The story – and Mr. Zichella’s comments – seems to cling to a preconception that what is happening here is union-project deal making through a haze of cigar smoke and with the wink of an eye. But, its easy to spot the politicians and advocates who are doing quid pro quo deals: they are on the front pages of local papers and under indictment. By contrast, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a party asking: “what does this mean to my members or my cause?” and then deciding how to approach technologies, proposed projects or public policy initiatives based on the honest answer to that question.

In the end, no one taking a stand on these issues should be given shirt shrift because of self-interest, as long as they are above-board about it. For years, groups like the Audubon Society have been opposing projects that might be in the “greater good” because the impact on their constituency – the wildlife and the advocates – is too heavy. Many may disagree, but they can take no quarter in arguing that the cause of avian welfare should remain unrepresented in the marketplace of ideas. Nor should the causes of labor unions, nor those of trade associations, business groups, community development corporations, or others

We welcome their comments in the public process and we temper them in the understanding the perspective from which they are derived. No judgment, no finger-pointing.

For more on this story and its implications for the public approvals process, see Joe’s EnergyWorks Community Relations Blog.

[photo credit: dbking]

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