Amanda Witherell

Money is power



GREEN CITY While the latest public power proposal was soundly defeated at the polls, the apparent failure of a pair of electricity generation initiatives backed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is fueling an existing plan to create more city-owned energy projects.

Proposition H, which would have moved the city toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 and allowed public power to help meet that goal, lost Nov. 4 by more than 20 percentage points. PG&E spent a record-breaking $10.3 million against the measure, or more than $53 per vote as of the Nov. 10 tally.

For that kind of money, said campaign finance expert Bob Stern of the Center for Government Studies, "they could have taken every voter out and bought them an expensive meal." But, he said, that’s a pittance for a company like PG&E. "They knew spending $10 million was going to save them a bunch of money."

Two days after the election, PG&E announced a 9 percent increase in year-to-date profits over last year, boosted partly by a 6 percent rate increase PG&E implemented Oct. 1, which it argued was needed to cover the increased cost of natural gas.

Prop. H would have moved San Francisco away from volatile fossil fuel prices, although the city is still hoping to procure 51 percent of its energy needs from renewables by 2017 through the community choice aggregation (CCA) program.

Meanwhile a plan to retrofit the Mirant Potrero Power Plant is looking shakier since Nov. 4, when the Board of Supervisors tabled legislation that would have authorized the Mayor’s Office and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to negotiate the deal.

Prior Land Use and Economic Development committee hearings showed that retrofitting the plant to run on natural gas instead of diesel may not be as technologically or economically feasible as suggested in a report commissioned by Mirant (see "Power possibilities," Nov. 5).

But a recent report on CCA outlines ways the city may be able to procure the baseload energy demand required by the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) without retrofitting Mirant or building new peak-demand fossil fuel plants (known as "peakers"), as city officials originally proposed.

The report by Local Power, the lead CCA consultant hired by the city, suggests that the SFPUC’s current plan to upgrade natural gas steam boilers in large downtown buildings can be modified to capture waste heat and turn it into energy, a process known as cogeneration.

The city Department of the Environment has already identified 106 MW of potential energy — about the same amount Cal-ISO is requiring the city to have on hand for energy reliability. Although this isn’t renewable energy because it’s capturing wasted gas heat, "it’s really clean, good quality brown power," said Paul Fenn of Local Power, noting that it makes use of something that is currently being wasted.

Local Power’s draft report, which lays the groundwork for what the city needs to do before 2010 to make CCA work, also disputes the conclusions of a tidal power feasibility study conducted for the SFPUC. In July, URS Corp. reported that tidal power in the Golden Gate would cost between 80 cents and $1.40 per kW-hour and only generate a little over 1 MW of power. "We do not consider a tidal power project located in the vicinity of the Golden Gate to be commercially feasible at this time," the report states.

Local Power contends that URS undervalued the potential energy by using computer modeling rather than actual tidal data and overlooked the strongest area for building an underwater turbine. It also failed to account for public financing at a lower interest rate, which would make city-owned tidal power much cheaper.

"We are confident you can get 10 MW," Fenn said. "The whole thing was modeled on PG&E ownership."

Local Power recommended the city get actual tidal data from the best spot and run the numbers again. "The ocean is the ultimate energy resource for San Francisco," said Fenn, who compared the challenge of constructing this kind of infrastructure to the Hoover Dam.

Newsom, who opposed Prop. H but still claims to support CCA, remains committed to tidal power. "Mayor Newsom supports advancing a tidal project at the mouth of the bay," his spokesperson, Joe Arellano, wrote in an e-mail.

The rollout of CCA is expected in 2010, when the city issues a request for proposals from companies interested in building or supplying energy. Several companies have already responded to a request for information. CCA is slated to include a 150 MW wind farm, 31 MW of solar, 103 MW of local distributed generation, and 107 MW of efficiency technologies. Funding would come from $1.2 billion in renewable energy bonds that have already been approved.

Local Power’s report includes concrete actions the city can take, including a plan to finally make Hetch Hetchy power available to citizens, a recommendation that the wind farm be built in the Delta for easy access to the Transbay Cable — a new 400 MW, 59-mile transmission line between Pittsburg and San Francisco that’s scheduled to be completed in 2010 — and urging the city to petition the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for so-called public good charges collected from ratepayers that currently go to PG&E’s energy efficiency programs.

"We’re trying to put ideas on the table for the RFPs," said Fenn, who stressed that the city should make it as easy as possible for CCA to get underway, a goal that will require a lot more cooperation between departments. For example, the report outlines several hindrances to getting renewable energy up and running, from permit hassles to delayed interconnections to PG&E’s grid.

"Where we see problems in the city for permitting and zoning, we can seek to change them now," Fenn said.

That chance may come soon. The Land Use and Economic Development Committee is hearing legislation Nov. 12 to require conditional use permitting for all power plants greater than 10 MW. Though the legislation originally targeted the Mirant plant, the Planning Department, in its review of the draft legislation, suggested that all power plants be subject to the additional review. Sup. Aaron Peskin, who sponsored the legislation with Sup. Sophie Maxwell, suggested the change wasn’t appropriate. "It just means more public process."

But, Fenn said, "To set standards based on pre-CCA era is at this point confusing. Like [Sup.] Ross [Mirkarimi] said, the CCA program should be the unifying principle of energy policy in San Francisco. Integrating all the pieces is indeed the entire secret of making all the parts perform better so that we can achieve the required meet-or-beat-PG&E-rates outcome."

Mirkarimi told us the program could obviate retrofitting Mirant or pursuing the peakers. "CCA still has not been taken seriously enough by the SFPUC or the Newsom administration."

My call with Rose Aguilar


By Amanda Witherell


Local KALW “Your Call” radio show host Rose Aguilar has written a fascinating account of her six-month road trip through four “red” states interviewing people about their lives and asking them why they vote the way they do. The book, Red Highways, details her interviews and interactions she meets and reveals Aguilar as the kind of reporter who is drawn to apparent contradictions and keeps her microphone on way past the sound byte responses. She and her boyfriend, Ryan, attend a progressive church in Dallas and dine with a pro-war vegan; interview a Republican turned Democrat because of domestic violence in Mississippi; have a close encounter at a gun show in Oklahoma City; and talk with gay, Republican environmentalists in Montana.

The book was published just before the election and I gave her a call today to get her thoughts on Barack Obama’s win, hear some stories that were left out of the book, and talk about how the media could and should be reporting from the real American perspective.

We’ll be publishing a review of Red Highways in Wednesday’s paper, but in the meantime, Aguilar is reading tonight, November 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way. You can find other author events here.


Here are some excerpts of my interview with her:

Food + bikes = fun


by Amanda Witherell

Are you in search of good food? Are you on your bike when you’re looking for it? Do you want to join a bunch of other people on bikes chasing down good food? Food justice activist Antonio Roman-Alcala will be leading a bike tour this Sunday, Nov. 9, that sounds like part food education, part snacking, and a limited amount of pedal power (through the Mission and southeast parts of the city, which are blessedly flat.) The four-hour tour will feature guest speakers from Mission Pie, the Free Farm Stand, Veritable Vegetable, People’s Food System warehouse, and Community Alliance with Family Farms.

Space is limited to 40, with proceeds benefiting the “In Search of Good Food” movie project, a very cute pilot of which is posted above and features an inquiry into the origins of the vegetables in tacos served by El Toyanese truck on Harrison Street. A must, must see.

Meet up is at 16th and Mission BART station, 11 am on Sunday. Get your tickets here.

Newsom laments Prop 8 win


by Amanda Witherell

Mayor Gavin Newsom in the Prop 8 spotlight. Photo by Luke Thomas, Fog City Journal

Mayor Gavin Newsom expressed equal awe over seeing an African American elected president of the United States and a ban on gay marriage in California. “First and foremost it was an extraordinary night last night…for the country…and for civil rights,” he said at a crowded city hall press conference on the day after the election. But when it came to the rights of another population, he lamented, “I never thought in my lifetime that I’d see a constitution changed to take rights away.” He expressed particular dismay that California, “a state that has always been on the leading edge,” has become “the first state in the history of this country to take rights away.”

“Because they did nothing except fall in love and say ‘I do,’” he repeated several times.

He pointed out that the 2008 victory of Prop 8 passed with a slimmer majority than the last attempt in 2000. “We are moving in the right direction,” he said. “Millions and millions of people said it’s wrong to take rights away from people.” And he remained upbeat: “It doesn’t make me proud but it doesn’t make me, in any way, shape, or form, pessimistic.”

With some stirring words he connected the history of social change in America to the gay rights movement, concluding, “Everyone deserves the same opportunities, the same privileges, as everyone else. Separate is not equal.” For different genders, races, and ethnicities the basis of equality is a founding principle in the constitution, which has now been altered. He maintained that opponents of Prop 8 will someday be on the right side of history. “How can we, in 2008, argue for a separate track based on sexual orientation?”

And he cautioned Prop 8 supporters. “Don’t be gleeful at the expense of human beings whose lives have been devastated.”

When questioned, Newsom expressed support for City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s efforts to invalidate Prop 8. This morning Herrera, along with city attorneys from Los Angeles and Santa Clara, filed a writ of mandate with the California Supreme Court, arguing “that the California Constitution’s equal protection provisions do not allow a bare majority of voters to use the amendment process to divest politically disfavored groups of constitutional rights,” according to a press release.

Newsom cast off as “irrelevant” speculation that his run for governor would see some fallout from his vocal opposition to Prop 8, and said he hadn’t given much thought to what his continued advocacy for gay rights would be.

Newsom’s green words for Obama


by Amanda Witherell

photo courtesy of Green Guerrillas against Greenwash

Environmental news web site, Grist, tapped a short list of people perceived as environmentalists and asked them to “imagine they found themselves in an elevator with the president-elect — giving them one minute of his undivided attention.”

Top of their list: our Mayor Gavin Newsom. Despite his lack of support for local environmental initiatives, in the national spotlight Newsom offers more comprehensive suggestions than many of the others posted by Grist.

They include following up on that $150 billion promise to invest in clean technology, more aggressive national efficiency standards for automobiles, buildings, and appliances, national cap and trade for carbon emissions, bilateral energy summit with China, green collar jobs, and financial support for local greening initiatives.

Read them all here.

Power possibilities


By Amanda Witherell


GREEN CITY San Francisco’s energy future is in flux. On Nov. 4, voters decided the fate of Proposition H, a plan for 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. On the same day, the Board of Supervisors was set to consider a proposal from Mayor Gavin Newsom to retrofit the 32-year-old Mirant Potrero power plant to meet a state mandate for local electricity generation.

The results of both votes occurred after the Guardian deadline, but either way, the city’s energy policy is uncertain, particularly after serious doubts about the viability of the mayor’s proposal were raised at an Oct. 22 Land Use and Economic Development Committee hearing.

The retrofit was hastily developed as an alternative to longstanding plans to replace heavily polluting units of the Mirant plant with new, cleaner, city-owned peaker plants. That plan was derailed after a meeting in May between Newsom and seven Pacific Gas and Electric Co. executives, who were apparently concerned about the city generating its own power.

The Mayor’s office calls the retrofit a "bridge" to a renewable energy future and contends it can be cheaper than and as clean as the city’s peakers. Yet at the hearing, Mike Martin, who’s evaluating the retrofit project for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said no retrofits have ever reached the emissions goals cited in Newsom’s proposal.

Jeff Henderson, senior project manager for Mirant, defended the $80 million price tag for the project (which is about $30 million cheaper than the city’s plan) but also said that they were "giving a price on a project that’s never been done before." Martin said the permits alone would be twice the price stated in a Mirant-commissioned feasibility study.

Chair of the committee Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who represents the district where the plant is sited, cast cost aside, saying that human lives and the lowest possible emissions were more important to her. Her district has the highest incidences of asthma and cancer in the city.

The retrofit would still emit more nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter than the city’s peaker plants but the Mayor’s Office is banking on it operating less, thus emitting less overall. The numbers crunched for the study by CH2M Hill presume Mirant operating about 156 hours a year, though it is permitted for 877 hours. The city has sued the company in the past for exceeding its permitted hours.

When questioned if the 97 percent emissions reduction proposed was possible, Henderson said, "The only thing that leads us to believe that is we had vendors who would say they could meet that under contract."

Maxwell invited three potential vendors to the hearing. All said the industry standard was 90 percent emissions reduction and that it was infeasible, if not technically impossible, to reach 97 percent. To try may even result in a net gain of particulate matter emissions because the plant would need more ammonia catalyst.

But the Mayor’s Office remained confident in the project. "The experts that presented before the committee were all experts attached to the CT project, so I would not consider them independent third-party experts," Newsom’s director of government affairs Nancy Kirshner-Rodriguez told the Guardian.

Bruce Schaller, vice president of Kansas-based power company Sega, said he wouldn’t bid on this job under the current parameters because, "We would be associated with a project that was a failure."

Tom Flagg, president of Equipment Source Company, said the project was "completely illogical and impossible to do." He pointed out that emissions vary widely. "You have surges in emissions levels. Sometimes it’s 94 percent, sometimes it’s 84 percent … A 97 to 98 percent reduction is impossible because in order to maintain that they have 100 percent reduction at times. It’s an average."

The need for new power generation in San Francisco has been pushed by the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), but environmental groups have urged the city to challenge that mandate. Former California Public Utilities Commission president Loretta Lynch, who spoke against the retrofit plan at the hearing, told the Guardian afterward, "The ISO are ideologues, not engineers. They have no basis in fact that we need any peninsula power production."

Supervisors passed a resolution asking the SFPUC to develop a transmission-only plan to meet Cal-ISO’s reliability demands. The SFPUC said it will present something within the next couple of months.

Obama wins, but no SF results yet


by Amanda Witherell

Soon to be Assemblymember Tom Ammiano greeted by supporters at Campos for Supervisor headquarters

Up and down Valencia Street you could hear cheers echoing from bars and balconies when Florida flipped for Barack Obama. We have a new president.

But here in San Francisco, the new slate of supervisors is still pending. Outgoing supervisor Tom Ammiano just stopped by the David Campos headquarters at 24th and Mission Streets. He said the word from City Hall is “There’s a long line at SFSU still waiting to vote and they’re not releasing any results until everyone has voted.” He’s predicting no results on local races until 9:45.

In the meantime, a crowd of Campos supporters just took in Sen. John McCain’s brief concession speech. “Good-bye,” several waved to the campaigner’s departing figure shown by projection on a blank wall in the back of the campaign office.

Guerrilla campaigning in District 1


by Amanda Witherell


Our SFBG email inbox contained these photos this morning, sent by “Subcomandante Marcos” who said they were a “guerrilla street response to your excellent story in this week’s issue.”

For those who missed it, here’s the story.

And more photos from Marcos. We love it when politics incite art!



Yes on Prop H rally at PG&E’s house


by Amanda Witherell

Clean Energy Act supporters gathered in front of Pacific Gas & Electric corporate headquarters on Wed., Aug. 29, to mock the $10 million the utility company has spent opposing the legislation.

Dressed as construction workers, activists from the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Green4All, and Green Guerrillas against Greenwashing, successfully erected three wind turbines in front of the PG&E building.

PG&E employees, penned behind a barricade and standing underneath a “Stop the Blank Check” banner watched the activists wrestle with enormous burlap bags of money, signifying the millions PG&E has dumped into the campaign opposing the measure that would move San Francisco more rapidly toward 100 percent renewable energy. PG&E alleges the measure is a blank check for supervisors because it allows them to issue revenue bonds to finance renewable power infrastructure. In fact, PG&E has written the entire check for the No on H campaign. As we pointed out in this week’s issue, it’s also shunting some of that money into supervisors’ races to support Mayor Gavin Newsom’s picks for the Board in districts 1, 3, and 11. Besides the fact that Newsom’s campaign director, Eric Jaye, also runs PG&E’s No on H committee, why might it be important for PG&E to have friends on the Board of Supervisors?

Well, if Prop H does pass, unlike the “blank check” lies PG&E is telling you about it, the SFPUC will conduct a study to explore the best way toward 100 percent renewables. If that includes a publicly-owned utility system (that would, by default, put PG&E out of business in San Francisco) the supervisors will still have to vote for it and vote for the bonds to do it. So, PG&E needs a board that’s friendly.

Downtown’s planner



The battle for the district 1 supervisor’s seat is being framed largely by politically conservative groups, funded by real estate and development, that are spending thousands of dollars supporting former planning commissioner Sue Lee over school board member Eric Mar.

An incestuous web of independent expenditure and political action committees have collectively spent enough against Mar to blow the $140,000 cap off the voluntary expenditure ceiling that all the candidates in that district agreed to.

The money’s coming from the Building Owners and Managers Association, Plan C, the Coalition for Responsible Growth, and the San Francisco Association of Realtors. Although these groups can’t legally work directly with candidates, they typically swap funds among each other and receive outside support from the deep pockets at the Chamber of Commerce, Committee on Jobs, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

According to Ethics Commission executive director John St. Croix, the $140,000 cap was lifted on Friday, Oct. 24, which means the candidates are now free to spend up to their individual campaign limits, which are different for Lee, Mar, and Alicia Wang, the other major contender for the seat.

All three are receiving public financing — but so much outside money is being spent in support of Lee that, to keep pace, the individual spending caps for Mar and Wang have been raised and are now higher than Lee’s.


Lee, who worked for Willie Brown’s mayoral administration and was public relations director for the Chamber of Commerce, now runs the Chinese Historical Society of America. Her voting record on the Planning Commission has been consistently pro-development and anti-neighborhood. Some examples from her final months on the commission:

<\!s> On April 10, 2008, she approved a mixed-use development at 736 Valencia St. and removed community benefits and below-market-rate unit requirements — against the wishes of community members and housing rights activists.

<\!s> On March 27, 2008, she was the only commissioner to vote against modifications to a rooftop remodeling project at 1420 Montgomery St. that would have pacified neighbors concerned about the scale and character of the plan.

<\!s> On March 13, 2008 she supported a conditional-use permit for a formula-retail paint store at Cesar Chavez and South Van Ness despite concerns about its effect on nearby small businesses.

<\!s> On Feb. 28, 2008, she approved a remodeling of a two-story flat on Potrero Ave. that opponents, including the next-door neighbors, characterized as a demolition in disguise.

"Her voting record for the past three years is crystal clear," one lawyer who represents neighborhood interests at the commission told us. "Given a choice between supporting neighborhood interests, long-term residents and the interests of the little guy or supporting development interests and the big- money people who are busy in our residential neighborhoods, she chooses the latter every time."

The lawyer, who regularly appears before the planning panel and asked not to be named, added: "She has supported big-box retail in our neighborhoods over the objections of neighbors. She has supported the destruction of rent-controlled housing and low-scale, more affordable housing that is being remodeled out of existence."

"She’s a total pay to play," said Robert Haaland, a labor activist with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which is deeply vested in independent expenditures supporting Mar. "Her donations can be tracked back to decisions she made as planning commissioner."

For example, Lee voted in favor of a plan by Martin Building Company to convert a city-owned building on Jessie Street into 25 luxury condos that now rent for about $3,000 a month. Martin’s owner, Patrick McNerney is a Lee campaign donor. Also contributing to Lee is Eric Tao of AGI Capital, which helped finance the Soma Grand development, a project opposed by sustainable growth organizations like Livable City, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF, and the Sierra Club. Lee voted in favor of it.

In 2006, Lee approved lifting the downtown height restrictions from 150 feet to 250 feet for a 189-unit building with ground level retail on Howard Street. The project sponsor, Ezra Mercy, gave Lee’s campaign the maximum legal donation of $500.

In fact, her campaign has received thousands of dollars in individual contributions — and according to our analysis, more than half has come from real estate developers, attorneys, and builders, including some who appear frequently before the Planning Commission, such as executives from Wilson Meany Sullivan, CB Richard Ellis, and Millennium Partners.

Lee did not return a call seeking comment.


The same day the spending cap was lifted, Mar alleged the local Democratic Party’s name was being improperly used by a new group calling itself the "San Francisco Democratic Club." First reported by Paul Hogarth on the online news site BeyondChron, the club is apparently composed of Democratic County Central Committee defectors who disagreed with the party’s endorsements for the Nov. 4 election.

The group’s treasurer, Mike Riordan, is also a deputy political director of PG&E’s Stop the Blank Check Committee, which is mounting the $10 million campaign against the Clean Energy Act. PG&E gave $30,000 to this new democratic club, the members of which have not been revealed.

Riordan hired DCCC member Tom Hseih’s firm to send robocalls in Cantonese to Asian voters urging support for Lee over DCCC-endorsed Mar. The endorsement script referred to the group as the "San Francisco Democratic Party Club." Mar said it was a misleading way to align this new club with the DCCC.

When asked if the club’s use of the Democratic Party name and membership to support candidates and issues that haven’t received the party’s vote was their intention, Hsieh told the Guardian, "Yeah, and you know what? That’s covered under the First Amendment."

Sup. Aaron Peskin, who chairs the DCCC and spoke on its behalf in support of Mar at two recent rallies, said, "at minimum, it’s misleading. At maximum it’s a violation of the party rules and punishable by removal." He said there was a credible argument and evidence supporting Mar’s allegation, but that it’s something the DCCC would have to deal with in its own house, likely after Nov. 4.

Lunchtime fun tomorrow



by Amanda Witherell

For all y’all who are roaming around the financial district tomorrow or need some diversion from the grind, swing by 77 Beale Street where clean energy activists are going to be installing three enormous wind turbines in front of PG&E’s headquarters.

Starting promptly at noon, about three-dozen people dressed for green jobs construction success will build three 12-foot wind turbines in front of the headquarters of a $12 billion utility company that sells 89 percent non-renewable energy. They’ll be calling on voters to approve the Clean Energy Act, Prop H on next Tuesday’s ballot, which, if passed, lays out a plan for 100 percent renewable energy for San Francisco that includes a green jobs component.

According to the press release, “Workers in green hard hats and overalls will build the wind generators and then begin to erect them – evoking the image of the WW II victory photo, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, illustrating the historic opportunity Prop H offers our country for secure energy. The $9.9 million that PG&E has spent to oppose Prop H will be visually depicted by ten large burlap sacks of money.”

PG&E has been busy blistering the city with lies about what the measure will do — even their vice president quaked when reasonably questioned about the measure.

Proponents call it “the most robust renewable energy policy ever seriously considered in the country, and yet is more modest than Al Gore’s recent call to Americato achieve 100% renewable energy in a decade.”

They may get the big PG&E boot, so be sharp to catch the action. Wed., Oct. 29, noon to 12:30 at 77 Beale Street.

Mayor’s power plant plan flawed


by Amanda Witherell

Or, as Sup. Aaron Peskin put it one point during the dramatic Wed. Oct. 22 Land Use and Economic Development committee hearing, “The only thing holding this proposal together is the staple in the upper left hand corner.”

Under discussion was Mayor Gavin Newsom’s plan to retrofit 32-year-old Mirant Potrero power plant Units 4,5, and 6 to run on natural gas rather than diesel and be 97.5 percent cleaner than current operations – a retrofit and emissions reduction that’s never been accomplished and might be impossible, according to testimony from industry experts called in by committee chair Sup. Sophie Maxwell.

The plan arose in June, after a May 23 tête-à-tête between Newsom and seven Pacific Gas & Electric executives just as the Board of Supervisors was preparing to vote on a plan to construct a new power plant to replace Mirant and meet state energy requirements. PG&E opposed the new plant (referred to as the “CTs”) as it would have been owned by the city, eroding the utility company’s control of local energy resources. Prior to the May meeting, Newsom had been part of a coalition of city officials, which included city attorney Dennis Herrera and Supes. Maxwell and Peskin, who supported the new plant and had been fostering it forward for several years as a way to close down Mirant’s more polluting operations. Newsom pushed for support of retrofitting Mirant instead, billing it as a cheaper alternative that could be just as clean as the new city-owned combustion turbine facility that had been proposed.

But the results of a July feasibility study [PDF], completed by CH2M Hill and currently part of the SFPUC’s negotiations with Mirant, had Peskin comparing the idea to retrofitting a 1974 Chevy rather than going for a new Toyota Prius.

A score of issues came up as the study was discussed during what proved to be a very revealing hearing. They include an assumption of reduced air emissions for the retrofit based on reduced runtimes for a plant that the city has sued in the past for operating more than it was legally permitted, a possible ducking of CEQA environmental review, a lack of established regulatory oversight of the plant, an emissions control system that “predicts” rather than actually measures pollution, an understated project cost of $78,730,000 and the fact that executives from energy companies that routinely bid on such retrofit projects testified that they wouldn’t go anywhere near this one.

Artist’s mural used by Clean Energy foes


by Amanda Witherell


Actually, this artist disagrees.

Once art is out in the public domain, it’s fair game for all kinds of abuse, but we got the following message today from artist Chris Lux, who’s perturbed that his mural served as a backdrop in a recent anti-Clean Energy Act advertisement.

Lux said:

“Recently a No on Prop H ad caught my eye.

“There is a shot of Richard Ventura, CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in Lilac Ally speaking out against Prop H. He is standing in front of a mural that I painted there with another artist, Leslie Kulesh, in what looks like an attempt to show how he is ethnic, or whatever.

“As a big supporter of Prop H, as well as many progressives in San Francisco, I am appalled that my work was used as a backdrop for this sleazy and expensive ad campaign. This is one of the most important propositions that has come to San Francisco in a long time.

“I recently did a mural for the John Avalos Campaign Headquarters in District 11. I feel it is really important for artists to give what little they have to help make changes here in SF. I would hate for someone to see the ad and then go to Johns Avalos’ headquarters and see the same work and think there was any relation.

“As the text above reads, “SF Citizens Agree- No on Prop H” — I just wanted to speak out and say that as the person who painted the mural you are using, as a San Francisco citizen, as an artist, and someone who was born and raised here, Vote YES on Prop H.”

Here’s the original video, parroting PG&E’s tired old lies about Prop H.

Anniversary Issue: People’s power



Living in a city like San Francisco, it’s pretty easy to advance your personal environmental prerogative. You can walk, ride your bike, or take public transportation almost anywhere you want to go. You can spurn the dominant consumer consciousness and buy used clothes and household goods at thrift stores. You can take short showers and drink clean Hetch Hetchy tap water instead of the bottled stuff. You can pick organic cornflakes over Kellogg’s version. You can even go to a worker-owned co-op that sells mostly organic goods and buy produce from Bay Area growers at the farmers markets.

But when it comes to energy, you’re stuck.

You’re stuck with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. You’re stuck buying electricity that’s 89 percent environmentally unsound, from a company that can’t even meet the modest state requirement of 20 percent renewable by 2010.

The $12 billion utility company offers absolutely no way for consumers to purchase 100 percent green energy, although some of its counterparts, including publicly owned Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Silicon Valley Power, make that option available.

Sure, you can use less electricity by screwing compact fluorescent light bulbs into your lamps, unplugging your cell phone charger when you leave the house, and hanging your clothes on the line to dry. But you can’t look at the diesel and gas-fired Potrero Hill power plant and say, "Nope, I’m getting my power elsewhere."

What if you could? What if you could hike to the top of Bernal Hill or Mount Sutro and look out across the skyline of San Francisco and no longer see any power plant stacks belching fumes? What if you saw solar panels shimmering on nearly every roof, and wind turbines spinning furiously in the late afternoon breeze, and you knew that your apartment didn’t depend on a distant fossil fuel plant polluting Antioch, or an aging nuclear plant menacing the people of San Luis Obispo?

That’s what a long-term financially and environmentally sustainable energy system for San Francisco would look like. The picture would include thousands of small-scale, locally-owned solar panels and wind turbines and geothermal home heating pumps and plug-in hybrid cars, distributed throughout the city, feeding into a grid that uses wireless technology to monitor and automatically adjust loads in tiny ways you don’t even notice.

It would also involve a new economic model that doesn’t require you to own a home to own solar power, and a system that uses off-the-shelf and emerging technologies to promote efficiency. The city would use its low interest bonding ability to invest in larger tidal power and wind farm infrastructure, and pay for things like burying power lines and training the next generation of city workers to run the new, smarter energy grid and maintain and install more renewable energy.

It isn’t pie in the sky, either — most of the technologies exist, the funding structures are there, and the goals are real: Al Gore has said the country could have 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, and he’s right.

San Francisco is actually on the path to making it happen — with a November ballot measure, Proposition H, and a community choice aggregation system — if City Hall and the voters can get beyond PG&E’s lobbying and lies.

Imagine you’re a longtime tenant in a rent-controlled apartment with a landlord who hasn’t bothered to put solar panels on the roof because he or she doesn’t pay the electric bill (you do). But it doesn’t matter, because you actually own shares in a vast network of photovoltaic panels distributed all over the city, maintained and managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

You, along with the thousands of other San Franciscans who are part of this power cooperative, pay a flat rate for enough shares to meet your energy needs. Over time, as the upfront cost of the system is paid off, your rates decrease and your power bill drops so low it is barely a factor in your life. And the SFPUC helped you find ways to make your apartment more energy efficient, so that some of your wasted electricity could be freed for other people to use. That way, the city wouldn’t have to spend more public money building a new power plant. And the panels you own provide more electricity than you actually need — so you’re making a little money selling the excess to other residents.

This is the vision of what would happen under Proposition H and community choice aggregation (CCA), the city’s proposed plan for locally controlled power. "It unbundles the location of the resource from the ownership so renters can participate," said Paul Fenn, CEO of Local Power and lead author of the city’s CCA plan. That’s key for a city like San Francisco, where two-thirds of the population rents.

Right now, even though the city has some robust incentives for purchasing solar panels, buyers still need deep pockets to cover the upfront cost.

But the city can use its low-interest bonding authority to purchase panels in bulk and identify well-oriented, available roof space to install them. The roof owner could own the panels, rent the space, just buy the power, or opt out entirely. "It’s not just public power, it’s community power," Fenn said. "It’s not just owned by the government — it’s owned by the people."

SMUD — a model public power agency — offers its customers something similar, "solar shares" in an array of panels. Shares start at $10.75 for a half-kilowatt and, depending on how much energy you use, you would save between $4 and $50 per month.

California’s CCA law — Assembly Bill 117, authored by state Sen. Carole Migden and passed in 2002 — allows counties to become their own energy providers and buy or build their own power, then pipe it to residents using the existing transmission infrastructure owned by the utility company. As a CCA, the city could pursue green energy more aggressively than PG&E does, could set its own rates, and make rules about how people are compensated for their power.

For example, current metering laws allow you to be credited the extra energy your solar panels produce during times they aren’t producing. But if at the end of the year your system generates more power than you use, PG&E keeps the surplus — for free. The CCA could pay you a fair rate for it instead.

San Francisco’s current CCA plan lays out the financing and acquisition for 51 percent renewable energy by 2017.

That’s about 360 MW of energy — and the upfront costs for solar panels on homes, businesses, and city buildings, as well as a 150 MW wind farm and scores of other energy-saving measures, are financed by a $1.2 billion revenue bond. Assuming a good interest rate of about 5.5 percent and a 20-year payback, that amounts to $99 million a year for the city.

Rates would cover this and any excess revenue could lower bills or fund future renewable energy projects. And, if voters pass Prop H in November, the city will be required to provide 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Prop. H builds on the existing CCA plan by requiring the city to look at owning its own transmission and distribution system — a program that would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, enough to fund extensive conservation and renewable programs. How can clean, reliable, low-cost energy be right on the horizon? Simple: Public ownership and decentralized local generation.

The benefits of publicly owned, locally based energy are vast. Local distribution cuts the cost of building large transmission lines and saves a lot of energy that’s lost as heat from high voltage electricity traveling long distances. Renewable energy doesn’t use fuel, and fuel is what we’re really paying for from PG&E — which is also a natural gas company.

The city owns no fossil fuel-reliant infrastructure, but PG&E is deeply invested in natural gas, gets about 40 percent of its energy from it, and has four new gas plants under construction. "As a society, we have to decide whether we want to get on the up elevator or the down elevator," said Robert Freehling, research director for Local Power. "Over time, fuel costs more and more. We make all these investments in hardware and tend to forget that it’s a promise to spend more money later. With solar panels and wind turbines there are no risks that the cost of wind or sunlight is going to go up in five years."

Natural gas, as well as every other fossil fuel, definitely will rise in price. (PG&E recently raised rates 6 percent to reflect that.) If a carbon tax or a cap and trade law is implemented, it’ll go up even more.

"Ultimately what will happen is that fossil fuels will get more expensive and renewable energy will become more affordable," Freehling said.

Would the city do a better job of promoting energy efficiency than PG&E? Look at the record.

Between 2003 and 2005, a Peak Energy Program was undertaken as a partnership between PG&E and the SF Department of the Environment (SFE) with $16.3 million in state money. In an August 2006 report, the Office of the Legislative Analyst found that with only an eighth of the funding, SFE was responsible for more than one-fifth of the energy savings. In other words, the city used the money more efficiently than PG&E.

The major criticism of most renewable energy technologies is that they’re intermittent, meaning they can’t provide power all day and all night. The sun goes down; the wind fades. Nuclear, coal, and natural gas are always on because we need power. And though many energy experts have asserted that the grid still needs at least some base load power, this assumes we’ll never apply technology to the system in any meaningful way.

But those critics are talking about a stupid grid — and the days when energy was managed that way are over. Federal and state regulators began meeting as a smart grid task force this year.

In a smart-grid world with 100 percent renewables, intermittent resources are blended to meet the current load, and the load is tweaked in minor, unnoticeable ways to meet what the resources can provide.

Suppose, for example, that it’s mid-afternoon on a hot day and a cloud bank passes over San Francisco, causing the output from all the city’s rooftop solar panels to decrease slightly. The smart grid would instantly send a signal to 10,000 air conditioners and shut them off for 15 minutes until the cloud passes. Later that night, perhaps the output from the city’s wind farm dips from 150 MW to 100 MW — the grid would automatically turn down everyone’s refrigerator by one degree.

"It’s called capacity-balancing," Fenn said. "It’s part of how you go greener and stay cheaper."

But PG&E will never pursue real green energy because in the long run, there’s no profit in it. "That’s like trying to persuade AT&T, back in 1975, to pursue developing the Internet," Fenn said. "We’re not looking for a 20 percent improvement. We want a complete transformation." *

Tell Obama and McCain to go to Poland


by Amanda Witherell

image courtesy of

Send the prospective presidents a letter that says “get thee to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations in Poznan, Poland this December and talk to the rest of the world leaders, with or without preconditions, about rapidly reversing global carbon emissions.”

Or if you’re not feeling your inner environment-in-crisis muse, just click here and 350 will send it for you. It’s easy. I did it and was 9,000th person to do so.

350, an organization founded this past year by environmental writer Bill McKibben, has a mission to incite more public awareness and action on climate change. The name comes from 350 parts per million — what most climate scientists and watchdogs consider the safety mark for atmospheric CO2 concentration. Globally, we were at around 384 ppm in 2007, and despite all the talk and attention, there are no indications it will be any lower this year. Jamie Henn, co-coordinator of the campaign, said the number is an important one to burn into peoples’ minds. “We’re in the climate danger zone right now,” he told me. “For the first time we have a number, we have a target we can shoot for.”

And it’s a number off which to launch some long overdue international policy and action. The campaign began on Oct. 7 and organizers are hoping to get 35,000 people to sign letters, which will be delivered en masse to both Obama and McCain in an effort to get a solid commitment from both that whoever wins will participate in the international talks.

Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, has specifically asked that the president or vice president attend the next round of talks, according to and, as Henn told me, they’re targeting Obama and McCain, “because the US has been so bad, we have been so off the mark on this for so many years it would take the president attending” to repair our international reputation on limiting carbon emissions.

The Poland meeting is considered the precursor to a 2009 Copenhagen event that will hopefully result in an international treaty and agreement, a la Kyoto Protocol, to reduce global carbon emissions.

The US remains the only industrialized country that didn’t sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, the last attempt to curb global warming, and we’re the second-highest CO2 emitter, outpaced only by China.

Nevius: check your facts


by Amanda Witherell

Last week SF Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius waded back into one of his pet issues, homelessness, in a piece on the SF Streets and Neighborhoods workgroup. Convened by Mayor Gavin Newsom, the group is tasked with coming up with a few ideas to improve the street safety for a couple pilot projects centered around downtown. The group is stacked with local law enforcement officials, Newsom staffers, reps from the Chamber of Commerce and tourist groups, and a couple token homeless rights advocates, and the subtext of their mission seems to be implementing new quality of life laws, like a sit-lie ordinance, and double-strength enforcement zones that will further criminalize the already unfortunate condition of being homeless.

I reported on their last meeting here, a markedly different assessment than what Nevius penned.

Oh, where to start? How about the obvious: Nevius reported the wrong date of the next meeting. It’s actually going to be tomorrow, October 7 – though you wouldn’t necessarily know that since the group hasn’t posted its agenda. (Sunshine violation, anyone?) Anyway, Dariush Kayhan, the mayor’s homeless policy director, confirmed to me that the meeting is on Oct. 7, at 11 a.m., at St. Anthony Foundation’s offices at 150 Golden Gate.

Moving on: Nevius spins the group to make it sound like their work will be the first sip of a panacea long overdue – cooperation.

Get yer bike on: Gas-Free Fridays start tomorrow


By Amanda Witherell

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I’ve become a happier person since I sold my Jetta and started traveling almost exclusively by bicycle. Every time I’ve driven a car in San Francisco the experience has left me frustrated, annoyed, and feeling like I didn’t get where I was going any faster than I would have on my bicycle. I’m not alone — car sales statewide are down, the big three automakers are crying poverty and just got a $25 billion loan from President George W. Bush, and according to a recent national survey by Bikes Belong, of 150 bike stores polled, 73 percent said they’re selling more bikes this year.

So, it’s fantastic to see this new initiative designed to get people out of their cars at least once a week. Launched by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, they make the case for picking the bike over the car by pointing out that 50 percent of the city’s emissions come from transportation and half of all car trips within the city are less than two miles — an easy pedal on a bicycle. Furthermore, cars emit the most pollution during the first few minutes they’re running, which means that short car trips are the worst for the environment.

“Bicyclists will also be rewarded by knowing that riding a bicycle 10-miles a day versus owning and driving will save them $8,000/year, will burn an average of 110,250 calories (that’s 35lbs of fat!), and save our city 3,500 lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions every year,” states a press release from the SFBC.

They’ll be hosting warm-up stations at various locations where cyclists can grab free snacks and cups of fair-trade coffee and tea. Look for them tomorrow at:

Oct. 3rd: Market and 12th Streets, 7:30-9:30am
Oct. 10th: Valencia and 17th Streets, 7:30-9:30am
Oct. 17th: Embarcadero (between the Ferry Building and Justin Herman Plaza), 7:30-9:30am
Oct. 24th: City Hall, Polk and Grove Streets, 7:30-9:30am
Oct. 31st: Folsom and 7th Streets, 7:30-9:30am

Fundraiser tonight for local foods program


by Amanda Witherell

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For anyone looking to squeeze in a little extra fun before taking in the Biden-Palin throwdown, Bay Area Community Services is hosting a fundraiser in Oakland tonight. We profiled the amazing work this group is doing bringing local, fresh meals to seniors and disabled people through its Meals on Wheels program. In order to stop serving frozen food and start serving fresh, BACS partnered with Community Alliance with Family Farmers to connect with local growers who could supply bulk amounts of fruits and vegetables. They also established a free culinary training program for low-income adults who learn kitchen prep skills in exchange for cheffing up the homemade meals served through the Meals on Wheels program. Contrary to popular notions that eating fresh, organic food costs a lot more, BACS found the program cost per meal has only gone up five cents, but donations have increased by $20,000 because people see more worth in the fresher food they’re now receiving.

But it’s not enough and tonight they’re holding a fundraiser, capping off their “Seeds to Harvest” campaign to expand their facilities and the culinary program.

“Seeds to Harvest is the cornerstone of our effort to make BACS a leading ‘farm-to-table,’ self-sufficient food security organization,” said executive director Kent Ellsworth in a press release about the event. “The fact that we are so close to reaching our $100,000 goal shows that the sustainable food movement has reached critical mass. A few years ago no one expected us to be part of the slow food, sustainable food revolution at all, let alone be at its leading edge!”

Tonight, Oct. 2 at 5 pm, you can join them for locally produced snacks and goodies at the East Bay Community Foundation Conference Center, 365 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, CA. There will also be graduates from the culinary training program on hand to discuss their experiences.

Schwarzenegger snubs Harvey Milk


by Amanda Witherell

hm.jpg Today Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have designated May 22 as Harvey Milk day. The legislation, authored by Assemblymember Mark Leno, would have required the governor to annually recognize the day and would have encouraged “all public schools and educational institutions to observe this day and to conduct exercises remembering and recognizing the life of Harvey Milk, his accomplishments, and the contributions he made to this state.”

According to the legislative analysis, the bill had no fiscal cost.

In his veto message, Schwarzenegger said, “I believe his contributions should continue to be recognized at the local level by those who were most impacted by his contributions.”

Yeah, but we already get it — the whole point is to educate more people about his impact, and the guy’s about to go silver screen. If anyone out there doesn’t know who Harvey Milk is now, they will when they see Sean Penn playing him in “Milk,” the Gus Van Sant film that hits national screens in December — which makes it seem entirely appropriate that California might go on the record officially recognizing the great man.

In his legislative comments on the bill, Leno said, “Perhaps more than any other modern figure, Harvey Milk’s life and political career embody the rise of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights movement.” Milk was assassinated in 1978, while serving as supervisor in San Francisco. He was the first openly gay elected official to hold office in a major US city.

“Harvey Milk is a hero who stood for simple equality and justice, and ultimately gave his life for these principles,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese in a press release about the veto. “It would have been fitting to officially recognize his birthday as a day of special significance in California. However, as everyone who admires Harvey Milk fully understands, we can pay this great man lasting tribute by working to make equality a reality for all Californians.”

Project Censored



The daily dispatches and nightly newscasts of the mainstream media regularly cover terrorism, but rarely discuss how the fear of attacks is used to manipulate the public and set policy. That’s the common thread of many unreported stories last year, according to an analysis by Project Censored.

Since 1976, Sonoma State University has released an annual survey of the top 25 stories the mainstream media failed to report or reported poorly. Culled from worldwide alternative news sources, vetted by students and faculty, and ranked by judges, the stories were not necessarily overtly censored. But their controversial subjects, challenges to the status quo, or general under-the-radar subject matter might have kept them from the front pages. Project Censored recounts them, accompanied by media analysis, in a book of the same name published annually by Seven Stories Press.

"This year, war and civil liberties stood out," Peter Phillips, project director since 1996, said of the top stories. "They’re closely related and part of the War on Terror that has been the dominant theme of Project Censored for seven years, since 9/11."

Whether it’s preventing what one piece of legislation calls "homegrown terrorism" by federally funding the study of radicalism, using vague concerns about security to quietly expand NAFTA, or refusing to count the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war, the threat of terrorism is being used to silence people and expand power.

"The war on terror is a sort of mind terror," said Nancy Snow, one of the project’s 24 judges and an associate professor of public diplomacy at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Snow — who has taught classes on war, media, and propaganda — elaborated: "You can’t declare war on terror. It’s a tactic used by groups to gain publicity and it will remain with us. But it’s unlikely that [the number of terrorist acts] will spike. It spikes in the minds of people."

She pointed out that the number of terrorist attacks has dropped worldwide since 2003. Some use the absence of fresh attacks as evidence that the so-called war on terror is working. But a RAND Corporation study for the Department of Defense released in August said the war on terror hasn’t effectively undermined Al Qaeda. It suggested the phrase be replaced with the less loaded term "counterterrorism."

Both Phillips and Snow agree that comprehensive, contextual reporting is missing from most of the coverage. "That’s one of my criticisms of the media," Snow said. "They spotlight issues and don’t look at the entire landscape."

This year the landscape of Project Censored itself is expanding. After talking with educators who bemoan the ongoing decline of news quality and want to help, Phillips launched the Truth Emergency Project, in which Sonoma State partners with 23 other universities. All will host classes for students to search out untold stories, vet them for accuracy, and submit them for consideration to Project Censored.

"There’s a renaissance of independent media," Phillips said. He thinks bloggers and citizen journalists are filling crucial roles left vacant by staff cutbacks throughout the mainstream media. And, he said, it’s time for universities, educators, and media experts to step in and help. "It’s not just reforming the media, but supporting them in as many ways as they need, like validating stories by fact-checking."

The Truth Emergency Project will also host a news service that aggregates the top 12 independent media sources and posts them on one page. "So you can get an RSS feed from all the major independent news sources we trust," he said. Discerning newshounds can find reporting from the BBC, Democracy Now!, and Inter Press Service (IPS) in one spot. "The whole criteria," he said, "is no corporate media."

Carl Jensen, who started Project Censored in 1976, said the expansion is a new and necessary phase. "It answers the question I was always challenged with: how do you know this is the truth? Having 24 campuses reviewing all the stories and raising questions really provides a good answer. These stories will be vetted more than Sarah Palin."

Phillips said he hopes to expand to 100 schools within the year, and would like the project to bring more attention to the dire need for public support for high quality news reporting. "I think it’s going to require government subsidies and nonprofit organizations doing community media projects," he said. "It’s more than just reforming at the FCC level. It’s building independent media from the ground up."

Phillips likens it to the boom in microbrewed beer and the spread of independently-owned pubs: "If we can have a renaissance in beer-making, following established purity standards, then we can do it with our media, too." But for now, we have Project Censored, whose top 10 underreported stories for 2008 are:


Nobody knows exactly how many lives the Iraq War has claimed. But even more astounding is that so few journalists have mentioned the issue or cited the top estimate: 1.2 million.

During August and September 2007, Opinion Research Business, a British polling group, surveyed 2,414 adults in 15 of 18 Iraqi provinces and found that more than 20 percent had experienced at least one war-related death since March 2003. Using common statistical study methods, it determined that as many as 1.2 million people had been killed since the war began.

The US military, claiming it keeps no count, still employs civilian death data as a marker of progress. For example, in a Sept. 10, 2007, report to Congress, Gen. David Petraeus said, "Civilian deaths of all categories, less natural causes, have also declined considerably, by over 45 percent Iraq-wide since the height of the sectarian violence in December."

But whose number was he using? Estimates range wildly and are based on a variety of sources, including hospital, morgue, and media reports, as well as in-person surveys.

In October 2006, the British medical journal Lancet published a Johns Hopkins University study vetted by four independent sources that counted 655,000 dead, based on interviews with 1,849 households. It updated a similar study from 2004 that counted 100,000 dead. The Associated Press called it "controversial."

The AP began its own count in 2005 and by 2006 said that at least 37,547 Iraqis had lost their lives due to war-related violence, but called it a minimum estimate at best and didn’t include insurgent deaths.

Iraq Body Count, a group of US and UK citizens who aggregate numbers from media reports on civilian deaths, puts the figure between 87,000 and 95,000. In January 2008, the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government did door-to-door surveys of nearly 10,000 households and put the number of dead at 151,000.

The 1.2 million figure is out there, too, which is higher than the Rwandan genocide death toll and closing in on the 1.7 million who perished in Cambodia’s killing fields. It raises questions about the real number of deaths from US aerial bombings and house raids, and challenges the common assumption that this is a war in which Iraqis are killing Iraqis.

Justifying the higher number, Michael Schwartz, writing on the blog, pointed to a fact reported by the Brookings Institute that US troops have, over the past four years, conducted about 100 house raids a day — a number that has recently increased with assistance from Iraqi soldiers.

Brutality during these house searches has been documented by returning soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and independent journalists (See #9 below). Schwartz suggests the aggressive "element of surprise" tactics employed by soldiers is likely resulting in several thousands of deaths a day that either go unreported or are categorized as insurgent casualties.

The spin is having its intended effect: a February 2007 AP poll showed Americans gave a median estimate of 9,890 Iraqi deaths as a result of the war, a number far below that cited in any credible study.

Sources: "Is the United States killing 10,000 Iraqis every month? Or is it more?" Michael Schwartz, After Downing, July 6, 2007; "Iraq death toll rivals Rwanda Genocide, Cambodian killing fields," Joshua Holland, AlterNet, Sept. 17, 2007; "Iraq conflict has killed a million: survey," Luke Baker, Reuters, Jan. 30, 2008; "Iraq: Not our country to return to," Maki al-Nazzal and Dahr Jamail, Inter Press Service, March 3, 2008.


Coupling the perennial issue of security with Wall Street’s measures of prosperity, the leaders of the three North American nations convened the Security and Prosperity Partnership. The White House–led initiative — launched at a March 23, 2005, meeting of President Bush, Mexico’s then-president Vicente Fox, and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin — joins beefed-up commerce with coordinated military operations to promote what it calls "borderless unity."

Critics call it "NAFTA on steroids." However, unlike NAFTA, the SPP was formed in secret, without public input.

"The SPP is not a law, or a treaty, or even a signed agreement," Laura Carlsen wrote in a report for the Center for International Policy. "All these would require public debate and participation of Congress, both of which the SPP has scrupulously avoided."

Instead the SPP has a special workgroup: the North American Competitiveness Council. It’s a coalition of private companies that are, according to the SPP Web site, "adding high-level business input [that] will assist governments in enhancing North America’s competitive position and engage the private sector as partners in finding solutions."

The NACC includes the Chevron Corporation, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Merck & Co. Inc., New York Life Insurance Co., Procter & Gamble Co., and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

"Where are the environmental council, the labor council, and the citizen’s council in this process?" Carlsen asked.

A look at NAFTA’s unpopularity among citizens in all three nations is evidence of why its expansion would need to be disguised. "It’s a scheme to create a borderless North American Union under US control without barriers to trade and capital flows for corporate giants, mainly US ones," wrote Steven Lendman in Global Research. "It’s also to insure America gets free and unlimited access to Canadian and Mexican resources, mainly oil, and in the case of Canada, water as well."

Sources: "Deep Integration," Laura Carlsen, Center for International Policy, May 30, 2007; "The Militarization and Annexation of North America," Stephen Lendman, Global Research, July 19, 2007; "The North American Union," Constance Fogal, Global Research, Aug. 2, 2007.


The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have effectively deputized 23,000 members of the business community, asking them to tip off the feds in exchange for preferential treatment in the event of a crisis. "The members of this rapidly growing group, called InfraGard, receive secret warnings of terrorist threats before the public does — and, at least on one occasion, before elected officials," Matthew Rothschild wrote in the March 2008 issue of The Progressive.

InfraGard was created in 1996 in Cleveland as part of an FBI probe into cyberthreats. Yet after 9/11, membership jumped from 1,700 to more than 23,000, and now includes 350 of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies. Members typically have a stake in one of several crucial infrastructure industries, including agriculture, banking, defense, energy, food, telecommunications, law enforcement, and transportation. The group’s 86 chapters coordinate with 56 FBI field offices nationwide.

While FBI Director Robert Mueller has said he considers this segment of the private sector "the first line of defense," the American Civil Liberties Union issued a grave warning about the potential for abuse. "There is evidence that InfraGard may be closer to a corporate TIPS program, turning private-sector corporations — some of which may be in a position to observe the activities of millions of individual customers — into surrogate eyes and ears for the FBI," it cautioned in an August 2004 report.

"The FBI should not be creating a privileged class of Americans who get special treatment," Jay Stanley, public education director of the ACLU’s technology and liberty program, told Rothschild.

And they are privileged: a DHS spokesperson told Rothschild that InfraGard members receive special training and readiness exercises. They’re also privy to protected information that is usually shielded from disclosure under the trade secrets provision of the Freedom of Information Act.

The information they have may be of critical importance to the general public, but first it goes to the privileged membership — sometimes before it’s released to elected officials. As Rothschild related in his story, on Nov. 1, 2001, the FBI sent an alert to InfraGard members about a potential threat to bridges in California. Barry Davis, who worked for Morgan Stanley, received the information and relayed it to his brother Gray, then governor of California, who released it to the public.

Steve Maviglio, Davis’s press secretary at the time, told Rothschild, "The governor got a lot of grief for releasing the information. In his defense, he said, ‘I was on the phone with my brother, who is an investment banker. And if he knows, why shouldn’t the public know?’<0x2009>"

Source: "The FBI deputizes business," Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, Feb. 7, 2008.


The School of the Americas earned an unsavory reputation in Latin America after many graduates of the Fort Benning, Ga., facility turned into counterinsurgency death squad leaders. So the International Law Enforcement Academy recently installed by the Unites States in El Salvador — which looks, acts, and smells like the SOA — is also drawing scorn.

The school, which opened in June 2005 before the Salvadoran National Assembly approved it, has a satellite operation in Peru and is funded with $3.6 million from the US Treasury and staffed with instructors from the DEA, ICE, and FBI. It’s tasked with training 1,500 police officers, judges, prosecutors, and other law enforcement agents in counterterrorism techniques per year. It’s stated purpose is to make Latin America "safe for foreign investment" by "providing regional security and economic stability and combating crime."

ILEAs aren’t new, but past schools located in Hungary, Thailand, Botswana, and Roswell, N.M., haven’t been terribly controversial. Yet Salvadoran human rights organizers take issue with the fact that, in true SOA fashion, the ILEA releases neither information about its curriculum nor a list of students and graduates. Additionally, the way the school slipped into existence without public oversight has raised ire.

As Wes Enzinna noted in a North American Congress on Latin America report, when the US decided it wanted a training ground in Latin America, El Salvador was not the first choice. In 2002 US officials selected Costa Rica as host — a country that doesn’t even have an army. The local government signed on and the plan made headlines. But when citizens learned about it, they revolted and demanded the government change the agreement. The US bailed for a more discreet second attempt in El Salvador.

"Members of the US Congress were not briefed about the academy, nor was the main opposition party in El Salvador, the Farabundo Martí-National Liberation Front (FMLN)," Enzinna wrote. "But once the news media reported that the two countries had signed an official agreement in September, activists in El Salvador demanded to see the text of the document." Though they tried to garner enough opposition to kill the agreement, the National Assembly narrowly ratified it.

Now, after more than three years in operation, critics point out that Salvadoran police, who account for 25 percent of the graduates, have become more violent. A May 2007 report by Tutela Legal implicated Salvadoran National Police (PNC) officers in eight death squad–style assassinations in 2006.

El Salvador’s ILEA recently received another $2 million in US funding through the congressionally approved Mérida Initiative — but still refuses to adopt a more transparent curriculum and administration, despite partnering with a well-known human rights leader. Enzinna’s FOIA requests for course materials were rejected by the government, so no one knows exactly what the school is teaching, or to whom.

Sources: "Exporting US ‘Criminal Justice’ to Latin America," "Community in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador," Upside Down World, June 14, 2007; "Another SOA?" Wes Enzinna, NACLA Report on the Americas, March/April 2008; "ILEA funding approved by Salvadoran right wing legislators," CISPES, March 15, 2007; "Is George Bush restarting Latin America’s ‘dirty wars?’<0x2009>" Benjamin Dangl, AlterNet, Aug. 31, 2007.


Protesting war could get you into big trouble, according to a critical read of two executive orders recently signed by President Bush. The first, issued July 17, 2007, and titled, "Blocking property of certain persons who threaten stabilization efforts in Iraq," allows the feds to seize assets from anyone who "directly or indirectly" poses a risk to the US war in Iraq. And, citing the modern technological ease of transferring funds and assets, the order states that no prior notice is necessary before the raid.

On Aug. 1, Bush signed another order, similar but directed toward anyone undermining the "sovereignty of Lebanon or its democratic processes and institutions." In this case, the Secretary of the Treasury can seize the assets of anyone perceived as posing a risk of violence, as well as the assets of their spouses and dependents, and bans them from receiving any humanitarian aid.

Critics say the orders bypass the right to due process and the vague language makes manipulation and abuse possible. Protesting the war could be perceived as undermining or threatening US efforts in Iraq. "This is so sweeping, it’s staggering," said Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration official in the Justice Department who editorialized against it in the Washington Times. "It expands beyond terrorism, beyond seeking to use violence or the threat of violence to cower or intimidate a population."

Sources: "Bush executive order: Criminalizing the antiwar movement," Michel Chossudovsky, Global Research, July 2007; "Bush’s executive order even worse than the one on Iraq," Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, Aug. 2007.


On Oct. 23, 2007, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed — by a vote of 404-6 — the "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act," designed to root out the causes of radicalization in Americans.

With an estimated four-year cost of $22 million, the act establishes a 10-member National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism, as well as a university-based Center of Excellence "to examine the social, criminal, political, psychological, and economic roots of domestic terrorism," according to a press release from the bill’s author, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Los Angeles).

During debate on the bill, Harman said, "Free speech, espousing even very radical beliefs, is protected by our Constitution. But violent behavior is not."

Jessica Lee, writing in the Indypendent, a newspaper put out by the New York Independent Media Center, pointed out that in a later press release Harman stated: "the National Commission [will] propose to both Congress and [Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff initiatives to intercede before radicalized individuals turn violent."

Which could be when they’re speaking, writing, and organizing in ways that are protected by the First Amendment. This redefines civil disobedience as terrorism, say civil rights experts, and the wording is too vague. For example, the definition of "violent radicalization" is "the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change."

"What is an extremist belief system? Who defines this? These are broad definitions that encompass so much…. It is criminalizing thought and ideology," said Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center in Portland, Ore.

Though the ACLU recommended some changes that were adopted, it continued to criticize the bill. Harman, in a response letter, said free speech is still free and stood by the need to curb ideologically-based violence.

The story didn’t make it onto the CNN ticker, but enough independent sources reported on it that the equivalent Senate Bill 1959 has since stalled. After introducing the bill, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), later joined forces with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a report criticizing the Internet as a tool for violent Islamic extremism.

Despite an outcry from civil liberties groups, days after the report was released Lieberman demanded that YouTube remove a number of Islamist propaganda videos. YouTube canned some that broke their rules regarding violence and hate speech, but resisted censoring others. The ensuing battle caught the attention of the New York Times, and on May 25 it editorialized against Lieberman and S 1959.

Sources: "Bringing the war on terrorism home," Jessica Lee, Indypendent, Nov. 16, 2007; "Examining the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act," Lindsay Beyerstein, In These Times, Nov. 2007; "The Violent Radicalization Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007," Matt Renner, Truthout, Nov. 20, 2007


Every year, about 121,000 people legally enter the United States to work with H-2 visas, a program legislators are touting as part of future immigration reform. But Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) called this guest worker program "the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery."

The Southern Poverty Law Center likened it to "modern day indentured servitude." They interviewed thousands of guest workers and reviewed legal cases for a report released in March 2007, in which authors Mary Bauer and Sarah Reynolds wrote, "Unlike US citizens, guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market — the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who ‘import’ them. If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting, or other retaliation."

When visas expire, workers must leave the country, hardly making this the path to permanent citizenship legislators are looking for. The H-2 program mimics the controversial bracero program, established through a joint agreement between Mexico and the United States in 1942 that brought 4.5 million workers over the border during the 22 years it was in effect.

Many legal protections were written into the program, but in most cases they existed only on paper in a language unreadable to employees. In 1964 the program was shuttered amid scores of human rights abuses and complaints that it undermined petitions for higher wages from US workers. Soon after, United Farm Workers organized, which César Chávez said would have been impossible if the bracero program still existed.

Years later, it essentially still does. The H-2A program, which accounted for 32,000 agricultural workers in 2005, has many of the same protections — and many of the same abuses. Even worse is the H-2B program, used by 89,000 non-agricultural workers annually. Created by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, none of the safeguards of the H-2A visa are legally required for H-2B workers.

Still, Mexicans are literally lining up for H-2B status, the stark details of which were reported by Felicia Mello in The Nation. Furthermore, thousands of illegal immigrants are employed throughout the country, providing cheap, unprotected labor and further undermining the scant provisions of the laws. Labor contractors who connect immigrants with employers are stuffing their pockets with cash, while the workers return home with very little money.

The Southern Poverty Law Center outlined a list of comprehensive changes needed in the program, concluding, "For too long, our country has benefited from the labor provided by guest workers but has failed to provide a fair system that respects their human rights and upholds the most basic values of our democracy. The time has come for Congress to overhaul our shamefully abusive guest worker system."

Sources: "Close to Slavery," Mary Bauer and Sarah Reynolds, Southern Poverty Law Center, March 2007; "Coming to America," Felicia Mello, The Nation, June 25, 2007; "Trafficking racket," Chidanand Rajghatta, Times of India, March 10, 2008.


The Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice has been issuing classified legal opinions about surveillance for years. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) had access to the DOJ opinions on presidential power and had three declassified to show how the judicial branch has, in a bizarre and chilling way, assisted President Bush in circumventing its own power.

According to the three memos:

"There is no constitutional requirement for a President to issue a new executive order whenever he wishes to depart from the terms of a previous executive order. Rather than violate an executive order, the President has instead modified or waived it";

"The President, exercising his constitutional authority under Article II, can determine whether an action is a lawful exercise of the President’s authority under Article II," and

"The Department of Justice is bound by the President’s legal determinations."

Or, as Whitehouse rephrased in a Dec. 7, 2007, Senate speech: "I don’t have to follow my own rules, and I don’t have to tell you when I’m breaking them. I get to determine what my own powers are. The Department of Justice doesn’t tell me what the law is. I tell the Department of Justice what the law is."

The issue arose within the context of the Protect America Act, which expands government surveillance powers and gives telecom companies legal immunity for helping. Whitehouse called it "a second-rate piece of legislation passed in a stampede in August at the behest of the Bush administration."

He pointed out that the act does not prohibit spying on Americans overseas — with the exception of an executive order that permits surveillance only of Americans whom the Attorney General determines to be "agents of a foreign power."

"In other words, the only thing standing between Americans traveling overseas and government wiretap is an executive order," Whitehouse said in an April 12 speech. "An order this president, under the first legal theory I cited, claims he has no legal obligation to obey."

Whitehouse, a former US Attorney, legal counsel to Rhode Island’s governor, and Rhode Island Attorney General who took office in 2006, went on to point out that Marbury vs. Madison, written by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1803, established that it is "emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."

Sources: "In FISA Speech, Whitehouse sharply criticizes Bush Administration’s assertion of executive power," Sheldon Whitehouse, Dec. 7, 2007; "Down the Rabbit Hole," Marcy Wheeler, The Guardian (UK), Dec. 26, 2007.


Hearing soldiers recount their war experiences is the closest many people come to understanding the real horror, pain, and confusion of combat. One would think that might make compelling copy or powerful footage for a news outlet. But in March, when more than 300 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan convened for four days of public testimony on the war, they were largely ignored by the media.

Winter Soldier was designed to give soldiers a public forum to air some of the atrocities they witnessed. Originally convened by Vietnam Vets Against the War in January 1971, more than 100 Vietnam veterans and 16 civilians described their war experiences, including rapes, torture, brutalities, and killing of non-combatants. The testimony was entered into the Congressional Record, filmed, and shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

Iraq Veterans Against the War hosted the 2008 reprise of the 1971 hearings. Aaron Glantz, writing in One World, recalled testimony from former Marine Cpl. Jason Washburn, who said, "his commanders encouraged lawless behavior. ‘We were encouraged to bring ‘drop weapons,’ or shovels. In case we accidentally shot a civilian, we could drop the weapon on the body and pretend they were an insurgent.’<0x2009>"

An investigation by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian in The Nation that included interviews with 50 Iraq war veterans also revealed an overwhelming lack of training and resources, and a general disregard for the traditional rules of war.

Though most major news outlets sent staff to cover New York’s Fashion Week, few made it to Silver Spring, Md. for the Winter Soldier hearings. Fortunately, KPFA and Pacifica Radio broadcast the testimonies live and, in an update to the story, said they were "deluged with phone calls, e-mails, and blog posts from service members, veterans, and military families thanking us for breaking a cultural norm of silence about the reality of war." Testimonies can still be heard at

Sources: "Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan eyewitness accounts of the occupation," Iraq Veterans Against the War, March 13-16, 2008; "War comes home," Aaron Glantz, Aimee Allison, and Esther Manilla, Pacifica Radio, March 14-16, 2008; "US Soldiers testify about war crimes," Aaron Glantz, One World, March 19, 2008; "The Other War," Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, The Nation, July 30, 2007.


Psychologists have been assisting the CIA and US military with interrogation and torture of Guantánamo detainees — which the American Psychological Association has said is fine, despite objections from many of its 148,000 members.

A 10-member APA task force convened on the divisive issue in July 2005 and found that assistance from psychologists was making the interrogations safe and the group deferred to US standards on torture over international human-rights organizations’ definitions.

The task force was criticized by APA members for deliberating in secret, and later it was revealed that six of the 10 participants had ties to the armed services. Not only that, but as Katherine Eban reported in Vanity Fair, "Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the CIA."

In particular, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, neither of whom are APA members, honed a classified military training program known as SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape] that teaches soldiers how to tough out torture if captured by enemies. "Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on SERE trainees for use on detainees in the global war on terror," Eban wrote.

And, as Mark Benjamin noted in a Salon article, employing SERE training — which is designed to replicate torture tactics that don’t abide by Geneva Convention standards — refutes past administration assertions that current CIA torture techniques are safe and legal. "Soldiers undergoing SERE training are subject to forced nudity, stress positions, lengthy isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, exhaustion from exercise, and the use of water to create a sensation of suffocation," Benjamin wrote.

Eban’s story outlined how SERE tactics were spun as "science" despite a lack of data and the critique that building rapport works better than blows to the head. Specifically, he said, it’s been misreported that CIA torture techniques got Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah to talk, when it was actually FBI rapport-building. In spite of this, SERE techniques became standards in interrogation manuals that eventually made their way to US officers guarding Abu Ghraib.

Ongoing uproar within the APA resulted in a petition to make an official policy limiting psychologists’ involvement in interrogations. On Sept. 17, a majority of 15,000 voting members approved a resolution stating that psychologists may not work in settings where "persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights."

Sources: "The CIA’s torture teachers," Mark Benjamin, Salon, June 21, 2007; "Rorschach and awe," Katherine Eban, Vanity Fair, July 17, 2007.


11. El Salvador’s Water Privatization and the Global War on Terror

12. Bush Profiteers Collect Billions from No Child Left Behind

13. Tracking Billions of Dollars Lost in Iraq

14. Mainstreaming Nuclear Waste

15. Worldwide Slavery

16. Annual Survey on Trade Union Rights

17. UN’s Empty Declaration of Indigenous Rights

18. Cruelty and Death in Juvenile Detention Centers

19. Indigenous Herders and Small Farmers Fight Livestock Extinction

20. Marijuana Arrests Set New Record

21. NATO Considers "First Strike" Nuclear Option

22. CARE Rejects US Food Aid

23. FDA Complicit in Pushing Pharmaceutical Drugs

24. Japan Questions 9/11 and the Global War on Terror

25. Bush’s Real Problem with Eliot Spitzer

Read them all at



Good stories are going untold everywhere, but Project Censored can’t cover it all. The project focuses on national an international news, but in a place politically, environmentally, and socially charged as the Bay Area, there’s plenty going on that major media sources ignore, underplay, black out, or misreport.

We called local activists, politicians, freelance journalists, and media experts to come up with a list of a few Bay Area censored stories. Post a comment and add your own!

>> The truth about Prop. H: Pacific Gas and Electric Company has been spending millions to tell lies about the Clean Energy Act, Proposition H. But the mainstream press has done nothing to counter that misinformation.

>> The dirty secret of the secrecy law: Vioutf8g San Francisco’s local public records law, the Sunshine Ordinance, carries no penalty, so city agencies do it at will. The failure of the district attorney and Ethics Commission to enforce the law has undermined open-government efforts.

>> The military red herring: The real politics of the JROTC ballot measure have little to do with this particular program. Downtown and the Republican party are using the measure as a wedge issue against progressives

>> The mayor’s war on affordable housing: Mayor Gavin Newsom, who touts his record on homelessness, has actually opposed every major affordable-housing measure proposed by the Board of Supervisors in the last five years. And since Newsom became mayor the city homeless population has increased — but shelter closings have cost the city 400 beds.

>> The hidden cost of attacking immigrants: The San Francisco Chronicle and Mayor Gavin Newsom have been demanding a crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the name of law enforcement – but the move has made immigrants less likely to cooperate with the police and thus is hindering criminal-justice

Bill McKibben and Cake step it up for Prop H


by Amanda Witherell

Bill McKibben has sent us a message supporting Prop H. Watch for yourself, or here’s the text:

“San Francisco voters: you have a real and exciting opportunity this election season. This proposition on renewable energy won’t just make sure that you’re able to insulate yourselves from the rise in electric prices that’s going to mark this century. More to the point, for the rest of us in other places, it will provide real leadership for both the national and international transition to renewable energy.

“Our only hope of dealing with global warming is to make that transition fast. And, as usual SF has the opportunity to be in the lead, on the cutting edge, doing what needs to be done.

“Thank you so much for taking that lead.”

No problem, Bill.

Incidentally, I’ve been depressed about city living lately and The Bill McKibben Reader has been my salve.

Read more about McKibben and Cake’s renewable energy concert, after the jump…

What are safe streets?



The San Francisco Streets and Neighborhoods workgroup, convened by Mayor Gavin Newsom, sat down to its seventh meeting Sept. 9 "to analyze and understand the key issues impacting safety on our streets and formulate recommendations for needed improvement with the goal of creating a safe environment on our streets for everyone."

Some of the top dogs on public safety were at the table, including Police Chief Heather Fong, fire department Capt. Pete Howes, representatives from the district attorney and public defender’s offices, and Kevin Ryan of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, who co-chairs the group.

Were they here to discuss the recent spike in shootings in the Mission District? The murder of a Western Addition teenager three days earlier? The effectiveness of gang injunctions in those neighborhoods? The upcoming march on City Hall of students from June Jordan High School demanding leadership from the mayor on the rise in violence?

Not really. A quick survey of the agenda indicated most of the talk would be focused on another great threat to public safety: homeless people.

"One of the things we never talked about is what are the specific undesirable behaviors we’re focusing on," facilitator Gary Koenig said to the group. Wielding a dry-erase marker at the whiteboard, he probed further, "In other words, the objective we set for ourselves had to do with safety on the streets. So what are the objectionable behaviors that make the street unsafe or make the street be perceived as unsafe by others?"

"Shooting people," blurted Seth Katzman, a representative from the Human Services Network, a coalition of nonprofits.

The room erupted in laughter.

"I’m going to keep bringing it up," he said, not laughing.

Koenig asked what other activities they were targeting, and a more telling picture emerged: drug dealing, aggressive panhandling, blocking the sidewalk, public urination and defecation, littering, intimidation.

"On intimidation," said Chief Fong, "if you have someone walking down the street and they’re yelling out or blasting out, sometimes they’re talking to themselves and all of a sudden, ahh! People don’t know how to respond and think that maybe there’s going to be a next step in terms of some kind of aggressive behavior."

"Would you call that scary behavior?" asked Koenig, marker poised to note.

"Just kind of unpredictable behavior in terms of how someone’s carrying themselves. They haven’t committed a crime, but …" Fong trailed off.

Koenig added "unpredictable behavior" to the list. "Remember, we’re really not talking about crimes here," he said. "We’re talking about what are we focusing on to help improve safety and the sense of safety on our streets."

That’s the real mission of the group: to make downtown more comfortable for tourists, shoppers, business owners, and condo residents; and more uncomfortable for homeless and poor people panhandling, loitering, urinating in public, acting strangely, getting loaded, or sleeping on the streets.

The group was clearly weighted toward enforcement, but coordinated with buy-in from those who demonize the homeless and those who defend them: Ryan, a law-and-order Republican, shares chair duties with the Rev. John Hardin, executive director of the homeless services nonprofit St. Anthony Foundation. Others at the meeting included Steve Falk of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce; Heather Hoell of Yerba Buena Alliance; Joe D’Alessandro, CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau; Bobbie Rosenthal from Local Homeless Coordinating Board; Anne Kronenberg of the Department of Public Health; Reginald Smith from the 10-Year Council on Homelessness; Jennifer Friedenbach from the Coalition on Homelessness; Human Services Agency director Trent Rhorer; and Dariush Kayhan, the mayor’s homeless policy director.

Their ultimate goal is to come up with a handful of recommendations for a street safety pilot project that Newsom will implement in two neighborhoods within six months. The group’s task, on this day, was to weed through the list and decide what the group would endorse.

So far all the proposals have targeted poor and homeless people with enhanced services, punishment threats, and new restrictions on street life. Suggestions ranged from establishing drug-free and "VIP" zones in the downtown business and tourist areas (which came from the Chamber) to COH’s suggestion to fully fund treatment on demand. But all agreed that money is tight.

"If we did a lot of the service things, we probably wouldn’t be doing a lot of the others," Hardin noted early in the meeting, indicating the enforcement and justice items.

The mayor has not set aside any funding to implement the pilot projects, according to Kayhan. And that reality steered the group away from social services and toward crackdowns.

For example, Friedenbach suggested the chronic inebriate program run by DPH does a good job, but said that it’s underfunded and should be evaluated and expanded. Koenig asked DPH’s Anne Kronenberg if this is possible.

"You know it all comes down to money," she replied. "There’s a little disconnect going on for me. What we’re saying is good but I also know what the budget situation is in the city. That’s one [sticking point] where if we could get the mayor on board … or some other creative way of funding."

"Money is a real issue," Rhorer piped up. "So I’m thinking maybe if it’s a high cost item, we take it off the list." Yet, he added, "I totally agree the chronic inebriate program needs to be expanded to more placement facilities."

Instead, it was removed from the list.

"The problem is, if we take out some of these matters, what we’re going to be left with is enforcement ordinances and the justice system. And I think we all agreed a long time ago the idea isn’t to incarcerate people, but to get housing and services for them," Katzman complained. "It’s going to leave us with the stick and not the carrot."

Recommendations in the "stick" category included establishing "drug free zones" with enhanced penalties for dealing, using, and possession. Similar zones already exist within 1,000 feet of schools and parks in San Francisco, but have been implemented more broadly in other cities.

After discussing the constitutionality of making one street corner drug-free but not others, some suggested folding it in with another idea on the list: VIP zones.

"What does VIP stand for?" someone asked.

"Very Important Person," someone else answered.

"How about B and T? Business and tourism zones?" Rhorer suggested. "Marketing of VIP sounds a little more difficult."

According to the description on the meeting agenda, VIP zones would be established around downtown, the Yerba Buena center, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and Union Square as areas subject to "special enforcement of drug laws, aggressive panhandling, sitting/lying on sidewalks" and other "quality of life crimes."

Defending the idea, D’Alessandro said, "Just from our perspective, tourism generates $500 million a year in local taxes that fund a lot of the programs we’re talking about at this table. And we’re very threatened. We’ve lost a lot of business." He said one convention bailed because a visitor was spit on.

"There’s obviously huge problems with this. It’s specifically targeting people because of their status, their housing status," Friedenbach said, sarcastically suggesting they have a registration for homeless people entering certain areas of the city.

"I think we have to separate aggressive panhandling and blocking thoroughfares from poverty," D’Alessandro said. "This is not targeting poor people."

"When you say sitting and lying on the sidewalk, that is targeting people who don’t have a place to sit," Friedenbach countered.

"Maybe we don’t do this unless we provide places to sit," D’Alessandro replied."

"Like more drop-in centers," Rhorer offered.

But temporary places to sit and sleep don’t seem like part of Newsom’s vision. Since he took office, more than 400 shelter beds have been lost. In March, Newsom defunded the only city-funded 24-hour drop-in center serving both men and women.

By the end of the meeting, many of the ideas for enhancing services remained in play, like ramping up Project Homeless Connect and the Homeless Outreach Teams, as well as more drop-in centers, housing, and job programs. All of the law enforcement–oriented changes were still on the list, including implementing the drug-free and VIP zones.

Speaking afterward, Katzman returned to the issue of what defines safety, and for whom. "We have tenants and clients in the Tenderloin who are afraid to go out of their buildings at night because of drug-related violence. They’re not complaining to us about people peeing on the streets," he said. "No one likes it, but that’s not the big issue right now."

PG&E desperate, so desperate to keep Marin customers


by Amanda Witherell

PG&E is so desperate to stave off any threat of public power they’ll proffer a 100 percent renewable energy pilot program to Marin county. And all we get is a bunch of Asian kids paid off by PG&E to spread No on H propaganda. Where’s the love?

Marin Clean Energy, a plan for the county to go 100 percent renewable through Community Choice Aggregation, has slowly been making the rounds of the ten cities who would be part of the power-buying co-op. Marin County supervisors have already approved the plan and so has Fairfax, but the other cities like Ross, Mill Valley, etc. have to buy in to make it feasible.

The plan would allow the county to purchase and provide 100 percent renewable energy for customers, delivered through PG&E’s lines. PG&E hates it because: 1. it makes them look not so green, and 2. it’s the first step toward a publicly owned utility that puts PG&E out of business.

So, according to an article in the Marin Independent Journal, failed assembly candidate Joe Nation and current assemblymember Jared Huffman’s ex-aide are now working for PG&E, talking up a 100 percent renewable pilot program. They’ve already got Sup. Charles McGlashan, who has been a leader on Marin Clean Energy, saying it might be a win-win. Sure, it may lead to an overall increase of renewable energy overall, but does anyone else find this incredibly cynical? Isn’t it interesting that PG&E can’t pony up any more renewables until a significant number of customers threaten to leave?

Cleaner and cheaper


>>Click here for our chart explaining how San Francisco can take over PG&E’s system — and wind up with $214 million a year in extra revenue. (PDF)

>>Click here for a comparison of public power and investor-owned utilities on rates and renewable energy. (PDF)

>>Click here for a comparison of Mark Leno’s Sacramento PG&E and SMUD (public) bills. (PDF)


Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has been saying that if the Clean Energy Act passes, it will cost the city $4 billion — and electricity bills will go up $400 a year per household to cover the costs.

But according to a Guardian analysis, a publicly owned utility could cover the costs of taking over PG&E’s system, finance enough renewable energy generation to make the local grid 50 percent green, and still generate $214 million a year in surplus income — without raising rates a dime.

In fact, the city could cut electricity rates by 15 percent — so that the average San Francisco home using 1,000 kWh a month would save $400 per year — and the system would still make $107 million profit annually.

Our analysis is based on conservative assumptions, and probably underestimates the city’s potential revenue. The figures all come from publicly available sources.

The bottom line: PG&E’s campaign materials are, at best, gross distortions of the truth.


The Clean Energy Act, which will appear as Proposition H on the November ballot, mandates that the city undertake a study to determine the most cost effective and expeditious way to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2040.

If the study determines that a publicly owned utility would provide the cheapest, cleanest energy, the first thing the city would need is a distribution system — the wires, poles, substations, breakers, and all the other physical infrastructure required to provide power. The legislation authorizes city officials to issue revenue bonds to build a distribution system or to buy PG&E’s, either through a negotiated sale price or eminent domain.

In 2001, the last time the city voted on a public power measure, PG&E said its system was worth $1.4 billion. Seven years later, although much of the system has deteriorated, the price has jumped to $4 billion. But utility officials freely admit they have no hard numbers: in a letter dated July 24, David Rubin, the director of service analysis, wrote, "PG&E has not done an inventory of its system, but it is readily apparent that the fair market value of PG&E’s electric system exceeds $4 billion … "

There are, in fact, hard numbers on the value of the system — numbers that both PG&E and state tax officials have used and agreed on for years.

The state Board of Equalization is tasked with determining property values on utilities and levying taxes accordingly. In 2007 the board reports, PG&E paid taxes on property worth $1.2 billion in San Francisco. That’s what the state auditors say is the value of everything PG&E owns here, including both the electricity and gas distribution lines, the buildings on Market and Beale streets, the service center, vehicles, desks, computers — much of which the city would have no interest in acquiring.

According to documents acquired through a public records request, the city controller’s office assumed in its ballot analysis of the cost of Prop. H that 50 percent of the assessed value was utility related.

We’ll make the same assumption. If the San Francisco controller and Board of Equalization are right, the actual value of PG&E’s electricity distribution infrastructure is $595 million.

That could be a bit low or a bit high — real estate appraisal is an inexact science — but at least it’s derived from a solid number. Even if you assume that the board’s appraisers are off by a few tens of millions of dollars in either direction, the number PG&E has put forward is wrong by about 600 percent.

Rubin’s letter to the city controller outlined how PG&E determined $4.18 billion as the system’s worth — by using "replacement cost new less depreciation" (RCNLD) as a measure. "California law specifically approves RCNLD as a method for valuing improvements to land, such as the electric facilities at issue here," Rubin wrote.

But appraisers disagree with Rubin. "The Code of Evidence section they are referring to mentions RCNLD as one of many pieces of evidence that can be considered in valuation cases," a veteran appraiser with knowledge of PG&E’s system, who requested anonymity, told the Guardian.

Because PG&E is a regulated utility that passes all the capital costs of doing business onto customers, many valuators argue that the rates those customers pay (reflected in the BOE figures) indicate the true value of the system.

"The value is the value is the value," the appraiser said. "Both PG&E and the BOE agree that fair market value is approximately equal to rate base." That, in this case, would be about $600 million.

William Marcus, a lead economist on utility issues for JBS Energy with 29 years experience in the field, told us that the standard method employed by the BOE in valuing energy utilities is original cost less depreciation and deferred taxes. "I’m not going to tell you RCNLD is $4 billion because PG&E has been known to come up with very high values," Marcus said. Even the RCNLD value is "almost certainly a serious matter of controversy." Marcus, a Yolo County resident, witnessed the 2006 public power battle between the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and PG&E, and said, "There was almost a factor of four between what PG&E was saying and what SMUD was saying and they were both using RCNLD."

"A reviewing court might look at RCNLD but would also look at original cost," Marcus said. "So you’ve got a high end and a low end."

The city would pay an interest rate of between 4.5 to 5.5 percent on revenue bonds, according to Ken Bruce in the Board of Supervisors Budget Analyst’s office. He pointed out that revenue bonds are repaid by dedicated revenue streams that are identified prior to the bond issuance, which can affect the interest rate. "It would be subject to a lot of scrutiny by rating agencies," he said. With this in mind, we used the high end in our analysis, and assumed annual payments at 5.5 percent. If the city buys the system at the price the Board of Equalization and Controller’s Office estimates, and the bonds are repaid over 20 years, the annual cost would be $49.8 million.


Prop. H sets ambitious standards for renewable energy — but our analysis shows that a city agency could easily afford to increase dramatically its alternative energy portfolio.

Some public power utilities (like private utilities) still rely on dirty coal and large hydropower — but this isn’t true of public power in California. Of the five major public power utilities we surveyed, all except the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are doing a better job at developing renewables than PG&E.

Just across the Bay, Alameda has enacted a very aggressive renewable-energy plan. "As we go forward, there’s a chance we might be 100 percent renewable if the price is reasonable," Alan Hangar of Alameda Power and Telecom told us. In November, the Alameda city utility will ink two new deals for energy produced at landfills and boost the agency’s percentage of renewables from 55 percent to almost 70. A deal for more hydropower is also in the works.

Hangar said the utility was able to purchase more renewables without raising rates "because we’re tight-fisted. We don’t have a lot of solar because it’s so expensive. But if the price came down we’d look at it."

Even though public power agencies aren’t under the same state mandate of 20 percent renewable by 2010 that investor-owned utilities like PG&E are required to meet, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District set its own renewable power goal — and has already surpassed it. "Being a utility with a board of directors elected by the public, there’s more pressure there to get renewable energy in the mix," said SMUD spokesperson Chris Capra. "The voters here told us they want more solar and green energy." SMUD recently started offering customers solar power from a 1 MW array owned by a private company that sells the power to SMUD. Because the sun is an infinite resource, unlike natural gas, oil, and coal, the utility was able to lock in a long-term affordable rate for the power. "Now we can get solar power to customers who can’t do solar on their own," Capra said.

For calcuutf8g the cost of renewables, we used figures from the city’s Community Choice Aggregation plan. If Prop. H passes, the CCA plan would be implemented as the first step toward the overall goal of 100 percent renewables by 2040.

According to the plan, over the first three years the city would phase in 360 MW of renewable energy, greening 50 percent of our grid. The Board of Supervisors already authorized the use of revenue bonds to finance 150 MW of new wind generation, 31 MW of photovoltaic cells, 72 MW of distributed generation, and 107 MW of enhanced conservation measures. The CCA plan calls for a three-year investment of $129 million for solar and $170 million for wind.

The supervisors have already passed the CCA plan, and it’s been signed by Mayor Gavin Newsom. That legislation authorized $1.2 billion in bonds to finance the plan — more than enough to get the renewable energy ball rolling.

Other financing possibilities exist. For example, PG&E’s energy efficiencies are paid for by a public goods charge levied by the California Public Utilities Commission, which for San Franciscan ratepayers totals $7 million per year. The city-owned system would manage that money instead — and that surcharge is already included in the average rate we calculated.

Furthermore, there are state and federal subsidies that can be applied to renewable energy purchases — these would be given to customers to purchase rooftop solar panels, wind turbines, and other distributed generation that could contribute up to 72 MW of the initial 50 percent in the first phase of the CCA plan. The city already gives $3 million in solar incentives to residents, and this program could be expanded with additional revenue generated from the power business.

We assumed the city could generate a substantial portion of the power it needs from renewables. For the first few years, power would still need to be bought on the spot market; we included those figures in the expense column.

The total costs for operating the system — including operations and maintenance, power purchases, and replacing the taxes that PG&E currently pays to the city: $524.45 million.


But after all the expenses are added up, selling electricity is still a lucrative business. If the city kept power rates at the same level PG&E currently charges — that is, if nobody’s electric bill went up or down at all — the city would clear $214 million a year in surplus revenue from the system. That’s almost as much as the current budget deficit.

Of course, a public power agency — run by accountable public officials — might decide to cut rates instead of banking cash. So we ran a scenario in which the city would cut rates by 15 percent. The bottom line: San Francisco still comes out $107 million ahead.

How can a city agency sell power so much cheaper and still make money?

For starters, PG&E has a guaranteed profit margin of 11.7 percent, approved by the state. A city-owned system doesn’t have to please shareholders with its profit — any surplus here could be folded into the general fund, remain in the San Francisco PUC piggy bank for future infrastructure needs, or be refunded to taxpayers. This is the basic difference between public and private ownership of a utility — and it translates into lower, more stable rates over time.

"For a number of years, we had no rate increases at all," said SMUD’s Chris Capra, who explained that the agency was able to stave off rising natural gas prices because of bulk purchases locked in at low rates. Last year the elected SMUD Board voted for a 7 percent rate increase to cover rising power costs and replace equipment.

The agency’s rates are still far lower than what San Franciscans pay to PG&E — and the private utility has announced it will seek a 6.5 percent rate increase in January.