Municipal Utilities Are Better Because They’re Easier to Beat

LA’s utilities are provided by two different companies, one public and one private. The contrast between them shows how effective the democratic process can be in the fight for decarbonization-- and just how badly things can go when the public has no say.

Screengrab from first aerial footage of Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak, reposted from  EDF.

Screengrab from first aerial footage of Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak, reposted from EDF.

Activists have won major climate victories because my city has a municipal utility.

Publicly-owned utilities are not a foreign or new concept. To the 4.1 million people in the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is no stranger than our municipal fire department. Neither is it a recent experiment. LADWP has performed its functions for more than a century.

I do not want to give the impression that there is love for LADWP among the general population. Like investor-owned utilities elsewhere, LADWP mostly gets noticed by working people when it’s screwing something up. Municipal utilities are not immune to the power outages, burst pipes, or cartoonish levels of corruption familiar to those with private utilities.

And municipal utilities, like investor-owned utilities, are reactionary institutions that stubbornly resist change, including decarbonization.

So if both structures are equally inefficient and unpopular, why am I coming down firmly on the pro-municipalization side?

The difference is that, with a municipal utility, you can go and complain to the people who make the decisions. Activists cannot schedule meetings with private utility CEOs to criticize bad decisions or offer alternate visions for the future. But voicing concerns at municipal utility board meetings is a protected first amendment right.

That’s more than a symbolic difference. Public access to the utility’s decisionmakers means they are vulnerable to public pressure. That pressure can be used to make the utility more progressive, more just, and more carbon-free.

This is not hypothetical. This is not a thought experiment. It’s happening right now in LA. 

As a grassroots climate activist in LA County, I’ve worked on several campaigns that targeted changes at municipal utilities. Following public outcry, LADWP canceled plans to spend $6 billion rebuilding three obsolete gas plants along the coast. Glendale Water and Power severely reduced the scope of a planned gas peaker plant after a grassroots campaign. After an initial rejection, intense public pressure forced LADWP to approve a major solar and storage project, which will provide the cheapest solar electricity in US history.

None of these victories would have been possible if GWP and LADWP had been investor-owned utilities. But because they were municipal utilities, the victories came in rapid succession, all happening in the span of only about six months.

The playbook for these campaigns was an inside-outside strategy. We mobilized local activists to rally outside LADWP headquarters—after the rallies, everyone would stream inside to LADWP board meetings, giving public comment in overwhelming numbers. We recruited public figures to speak out in support of our cause. We targeted decisionmakers with persuasion messaging on social media. Escalations into peaceful disruption or civil disobedience were planned in case these steps were not enough.

In other words, we used the same proven playbook you would use if you were trying to get something passed through a local city council. We won concessions that will have meaningful, material positive impacts on the lives of millions.

We’re using the same playbook again, in a last-ditch attempt to get the planned gas plant at Intermountain replaced with renewables. This is a long shot, but it wouldn’t even be worth trying if LADWP was a private utility.

I know this because I’ve organized against investor-owned utilities, too.

Not all utilities in Los Angeles are public. Though a public utility provides our water and electricity, we Angelenos are at the mercy of a profit-driven, investor-owned monopoly known as SoCalGas for the gas that heats our homes and cooks our food. 

Whereas LADWP’s actions are decided in full view of the public, SoCalGas does not invite reporters or the public into its decision-making meetings. So we, the public, are left without transparent information or political leverage when SoCalGas starts pushing profit-driven campaigns that damage our communities. Take, for example, their current propaganda blitz promoting “renewable natural gas”. SoCalGas is going from neighborhood council to neighborhood council all over Los Angeles, trying to pass a resolution that would allow gas to stay in our electric grid and in our homes forever.

“Renewable natural gas” is code for methane. Regardless of their marketing efforts, methane is a toxin and a powerful greenhouse gas with 84 times the warming capacity of carbon dioxide. Even if methane pipes did not leak, and even if we got all our methane from landfills, there would still be no such thing as “clean” methane.

When the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility blew out in 2015, it caused tens of thousands of residents of Porter Ranch to relocate, and made thousands more sick. SoCalGas’s response has been denial from the moment of the blowout through today. First, they denied it was occurring. Then, they downplayed whether they were at fault (they were). The leak lasted four months, releasing almost 100,000 metric tons of methane. Followup investigations have revealed that this is far from the first major leak at the site, and that previous leaks were swept under the rug. SoCalGas still has policies not to act on some leaks. Worse, all 114 wells at the Aliso Canyon facility cross an active earthquake faultline. The 2015 blowout involved just one well. The followup studies showed that, in the event of an earthquake, the wells would not pinch off harmlessly as SoCalGas asserted, but would rather shear. It also sits squarely in the path of wildfires, and is - as of publication - currently evacuated because of one. Imagine a disaster 114 times worse than the worst environmental disaster to ever hit the United States.

The facility still has not been decommissioned. It is hard for me to believe SoCalGas could possibly have kept it open if they had to answer to the public.

Today, communities all across California are working to protect themselves from the dangers of methane. Berkeley recently banned natural gas hookups for new buildings within their borders, ensuring that new buildings will use electricity alone for heating and cooking. It’s started a trend: other cities in California have begun following their lead. SoCalGas is clearly worried that LA will follow suit. SoCalGas is calling for “energy balance” and “energy choice”, arguing that consumers should be able to choose how they get their heating and cooking fuel. That sounds pretty good, right? You could be forgiven for assuming consumers should have balance and choice. But balance and choice were not things that were a priority for SoCalGas back when their monopoly felt secure. And balance, while an attractive word, seems to suggest we should compromise and find a “middle ground” on climate change. That will not work. To quote Greta Thunberg, “we cannot make deals with physics.”

SoCalGas also claims that gas is the cheapest way of providing heating for cash-strapped, working-class people of color. That is simply not true. Installing gas hookups actually adds to the cost of building a new home, and electrification can save a ratepayer money. Beyond that, the idea that SoCalGas prioritizes working-class communities of color is laughable. SoCalGas goes out of its way to locate its polluting infrastructure in poor neighborhoods of color, where residents don’t have the resources or political clout to fight for regulation and protect themselves from methane’s toxic impacts.

It’s clear that SoCalGas isn’t motivated by protecting consumer choice or helping out communities of color. Profit dominates the decision-making process of SoCalGas, and there’s not much we can do to change that. We can’t change their policies like we can with LADWP. So we just have to play whack-a-mole as their propagandists pop up at one neighborhood council after another. But they are full-time, paid employees, and we are spare-time activists; they can be everywhere, and we cannot. We’re reacting to them. If this were a municipal system, they would be reacting to us. The need for democratic municipal control is clear.

But how we might go about achieving that is less obvious. Activists in New York City, Providence, and Chicago are making concerted efforts to take their electric utilities into public ownership. From the outside looking in, it seems like an uphill battle.

Closer to home, the now-infamous private utility company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is making things a little easier by going bankrupt. After shoddy transmission lines and neglect caused the recent Paradise Fire in California, it looked possible that large parts of its grid and infrastructure would end up getting sold off to the highest bidder. Just days ago, extreme winds again threatened to down some more of their transmission lines, risking more fires. PG&E “solved” the problem by deliberately disabling the lines, shutting off electricity to more than 800,000 people for up to six days. Again, because this for-profit utility repeatedly refused to update its equipment, people died.

PG&E’s deadly neglect presents an opportunity—one the City of San Francisco is seizing. They’ve made an offer of $2.5 billion for the PG&E electric infrastructure that supplies their city. It’s far from a done deal—the utility is fighting to remain private. But if it becomes a public grid, it would be the first new municipal utility in the country in decades.

Obviously, the circumstances of PG&E going under are not ones we want to duplicate. But crises like rolling blackouts, increasing prices, and so on, happen all the time under for-profit utilities. These events can present opportunities to push for municipalization. 

In LA, climate activists have used the unique structure of municipal electric utilities to cancel four gas power plants and start building a visionary new solar and storage project. In a serious discussion of whether municipalization can affect carbon emissions, you cannot ignore these victories or downplay their significance. You cannot write off municipalization as a left-wing fever dream when it exists in my city. And you cannot tell me it is unrelated to the problem of decarbonization, when my friends and I have used it to make strides toward that exact goal.

The quickest path to decarbonizing our electric grid comes through civic engagement with municipal utilities. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, and the reactionary nature of all utilities, any mechanism that allows the public to hold utilities accountable is a mechanism that we must seize.

Tom Pike is a climate activist in the LA chapters of Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement. He tweets at @StoryTom.

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