Three California unions are accusing a rival labor coalition of using "shameful" tactics to win exclusive contracts for building renewable power plants — tactics they said delay new jobs and add to each project's costs.
Unions representing carpenters, laborers and operating engineers criticized California Unions for Reliable Energy for challenging construction projects on environmental grounds — then dropping objections after its main affiliate, the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, wins lucrative contracts to supply workers.
Since 2000, CURE has participated in environmental hearings for all 12 renewable energy projects proposed for the Southern California desert, filing more than 1,300 requests for data about water, air pollution and endangered animal species, according to the California Energy Commission.
To date, the building trades council has signed contracts to build one geothermal project and seven solar projects, and CURE has dropped objections to those plants. CURE has suits pending against two developers that did not sign labor agreements, and it is no longer pursuing claims on two other projects.
The contracts give the council control over setting work rules, including hiring. The council enlists members of CURE's affiliated unions — boilermakers, electrical workers, plumbers and pipefitters — and, if needed, other, less costly union workers such as carpenters.
Some deals come with payments of as much as $400,000 to CURE for a trust that promotes the industry. CURE and the council operate out of the same Sacramento office and have the same top executive, Robert Balgenorth.
State Energy Commissioner Jeffrey Byron said that CURE is entitled to participate in power plant licensing proceedings and that it sometimes provides useful research and expert witnesses. But he's skeptical of the coalition's motives.
"It does strain credibility when you have an organization called CURE that is concerned with the desert tortoise and wildlife habitat and turns around and disappears when a project labor agreement is signed. Then it takes credit for improvements to the project to justify its existence," he said.
CURE countered that it was motivated by a desire to protect the environment. Sophisticated labor groups, said CURE's lawyer, Marc D. Joseph, understand that any complex project must meet stringent environmental standards.
"This is not the 1960s," Joseph said. "People in the building trades are not stupid. They understand that their economic future depends on developing projects in an environmentally sustainable way."
CURE's intervention in power plant licensing hearings is aimed at making sure that construction workers and residents of nearby communities are protected from environmental dangers, Balgenorth said. A subsequent project labor agreement is "a tool to make sure labor standards are set in place and the owners have what they need," he said.
In an industry publication last September, Balgenorth denounced the carpenters union's leaders as being "anti-worker" and involved in a "transparent attempt to snatch more than the carpenters' fair share of good jobs away from the building trades workers."
CURE, of course, isn't the only group challenging power plant construction on environmental grounds. The Quechan Native American tribe, for instance, has filed a lawsuit against the federal government in an attempt to block construction of Tessera Solar's Imperial Valley solar power plant in the Sonoran Desert.
CURE's motives were questioned six years ago by Riverside and Roseville, Calif., officials, but an Energy Commission inquiry concluded that the staff did not have enough information to determine whether CURE leveraged the environmental review process to win project labor agreements.
The intra-labor dispute erupted in the last year as President Obama and now California Gov. Jerry Brown have looked to alternative energy and other environmental projects to help the nation and the state create jobs and spur the economic recovery.
Obama wants to reduce the nation's reliance on oil, and Brown wants to build enough renewable plants over the next nine years to power nearly every home in the state.
The carpenters and other two unions said the threat of CURE lawsuits could drive private-sector renewable-energy developers to other states or even out of business at a time when California has a 12.5% unemployment rate, the second-highest in the nation.
CURE is "here for one reason, which is to extract or shoehorn this company, this industry, into a project labor agreement that is not only costly and restrictive but inappropriate under the circumstances," Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters, testified last year at an Energy Commission hearing about solar plant licensing.
"To use the environmental issues to extract this is really shameful," he said.
Desperately needed renewable energy jobs are being "held hostage" by CURE's legal wrangling, said Jose Mejia, director of the California State Council of Laborers. Such delays, he said, could threaten a project's financing, eligibility for federal government tax breaks and contracts to supply power to electric utilities.
Tim Cremins, a lobbyist for the California-Nevada Conference of Operating Engineers, said his union was allied with the carpenters and the laborers, but he declined to comment further.
Executives and agents for renewable energy companies wouldn't comment on CURE's tactics, saying they feared it could create new political or labor problems.
An industry trade group official, Jan Smutny-Jones of the Independent Energy Producers Assn. of California, described CURE as "professional litigants" that exploit loopholes in the California Environmental Quality Act.
"The big problem," he said, "is that time is of the essence for all of these projects. They need to get built, and they are under contract [to supply power] to utilities. They don't have a lot of time for lawsuits used to extract concessions from developers."
CURE turns such time constraints to its advantage, Smutny-Jones said.
In August 2009, CURE intervened in proceedings for the Palen Solar Power Project in eastern Riverside County. Last October, after reaching a project labor agreement, CURE announced it had resolved environmental concerns, which included potential effects on groundwater, vegetation and wildlife.
At the nearby Blythe Solar Power Project, CURE signed a project labor agreement in July, after it had filed requests for information about air pollution and habitat for fringe-toed lizards, woodpeckers, prairie falcons, bats and other animals.
One of the pending CURE suits alleges that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar violated federal environmental laws by allowing the Genesis Solar Energy Project to be built on public land in Riverside County, where it would imperil Colorado River water supplies.
Neither the Obama administration nor the developer, NextEra Energy Inc., would comment.
The second pending lawsuit alleges that the state commission failed to protect desert tortoises sufficiently in approving construction of the Calico Solar Project in San Bernardino County. Calico's developers refused to comment, but the commission called the complaint groundless.
"The project was exhaustively analyzed, substantially improved and, ultimately, it was approved only after the commission imposed major changes and conditions that ensured that it would comply with all applicable laws," the commission said in a Jan. 10 legal brief.
Altogether in the last decade, CURE has won more than 40 contracts for conventional, natural-gas-fired power plants and alternative-energy installations, the coalition's Balgenorth wrote in the September labor publication.
Gov. Brown, whose election last November was boosted by millions of dollars in political contributions from labor unions, was careful about wading into the controversy.
"We must be sensitive to the environmental impacts of these projects but also move forward with alacrity to meet the state's energy, jobs and climate-change needs," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said.