Municipalization: More important now than ever

4
Wikimedia Commons/Mousco

In many ways I’m surprised and a bit saddened that I actually feel the need to write this explanation for why people should continue to support Boulder’s municipalization effort.

I understand why Xcel and the people and organizations that align with the energy giant’s desire to keep making profit off of Boulder are doing what they do; you know, running around screaming the sky is falling, whining that the muni effort is taking too long or that substations are too hard to understand or that it all is costing too much. I get that. It’s not rocket science. It’s a pretty basic marketing strategy built to couple with the company’s tactic of delaying the muni as long as possible in the courts and in front of regulators in the hopes that Boulder citizens will disengage and walk away from their fight against global warming.

What I don’t understand is why this pro-big-business, anti-environmental tripe may actually be resonating with some citizens of this otherwise green-thinking community.

It’s hardly a surprise that special interest groups who apparently like and trust Xcel with the planet’s future more than Boulder residents have endorsed a slate of City Council candidates — Bill Rigler, Mark McIntyre, Eric Budd and Jan Burton — who oppose the muni in near lockstep. Better yet for those trying to kill the muni, this slate of candidates claim they used to support the idea of creating an environmentally conscious municipal electric system but have now changed their minds and oppose it. It seems an odd, illogical position for a number of reasons but I suppose it might appeal to other fair-weather enviros, folks who’ve been reading all those anti-muni headlines in the Daily Camera who, for lack of time to do their own research, have begun to waver on the subject.

This whole transparent attempt to kill municipalization would be laughable if there weren’t so much at stake.

But there is a lot at stake, like our children’s future, so let’s step back from all the current political maneuvering and take a fresh look at what has led us to this place.

Let me start by reminding voters that Boulder Weekly has hardly been a naive cheerleader of the municipalization process. While we have always been and continue to be enthusiastic supporters of creating a citizen-owned-and-controlled electric utility, we have also been pretty darn critical of the City Council’s handling of some aspects of the process.

As far back as 2013 our reporting warned City Council that we believed Xcel would quite likely be able to use its political connections, coziness with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and its army of talented attorneys to force the City to build its own expensive substations rather than sharing them with Xcel. We reported many years ago that we thought Council was unwise to limit the cost of municipalization to a specific figure that would trigger an off-ramp moment if the costs went higher. As if at $220 million we should just let the planet die because it might add 2 bucks to an electric bill.

We never believed that such a promise was necessary to keep Boulder voters on board for this important project because we believed they fully understood what was a stake. We also reported that the legal advice Council was getting from the City Attorney was overly optimistic and too often told them what they wanted to hear while failing to take into account that being right on the law is often trumped by being bigger, richer, more experienced and better politically connected. In other words, we warned that the PUC might well side with its longtime pals at Xcel even when the legal arguments before the commission seemed in Boulder’s favor. And finally, we opposed allowing Council to work on the muni in executive session. Why? Because the people’s business should be conducted in public. And if it had been, both media and public scrutiny may well have prevented Council from following poor legal advice and ineffective strategies.

And if they haven’t figured it out yet, let me explain it again. Xcel has lots of money to pay lots of attorneys who actually create multiple legal strategies at a time to combat every possible scenario that the City could theoretically come up with while working on its plans in secret. Executive session accomplishes nothing but to cause the public to turn against the muni because they have been removed from the process.

So you might be wondering why, since we’ve been so critical of the process, aren’t we now jumping ship like those candidates have done? The answer is because we think that would be incredibly stupid, shortsighted and wrong. You fix things as you go via the democratic process, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you question the process, try choosing some new leaders who can fight this fight and get it done instead of walking away from what may well be the most important thing this City ever does. And as a rule of thumb, it’s never a good idea to vote for people who give up when things get hard.

Sure, the process could have gone smoother, but our citizen council members are learning as they go and using the advice they are given, good or bad. They have made great progress on a really complex issue while fighting a massive corporation with unlimited funds out to stop them both in the real courts and the court of public opinion.

What are people thinking? Do they believe climate change is just some game… a political chip to be bet or held depending on which way the wind is blowing? We have at best 50 to 100 years left to stop using fossil fuels or lose the planet, leaving our children and grandchildren to cope with unimaginable hardships.

And now I’m hearing that some people in this community have apparently grown too tired of the fight after a mere seven years because the muni is taking too long or they’re afraid it might cost them an extra couple of bucks a year. Really? In Boulder, Colorado? People are actually going to give up on municipalization and allow Xcel’s strategy of dragging things out as long possible to win? I have always thought Xcel underestimated the resolve of the people of Boulder. I sure hope I’m not wrong on that one.

Let’s be logical here, folks, and this includes you eco-flip-floppers running for Council. So you voted for the effort to create a municipal electric utility a few years back because you believed it would allow Boulder to better curtail its greenhouse gas emissions, which are contributing to global warming. Presumably, you also voted for it because by doing so, Boulder would be paving the way and serving as a model that would help other communities to achieve the same thing. So the world needed a muni seven years ago but some of you aren’t so sure that’s still true. Let’s look at what’s changed since the muni process began.

We now have a climate change denier in the form of Donald Trump in the White House. He has appointed a climate change denier named Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency and instructed him to dismantle as many of its environmental regulations as possible as quickly as possible. Our country has removed itself from the Paris climate agreement that would have guided our efforts to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Pruitt has announced his efforts to kill the Clean Power Plan and he is working around the clock to remove all restrictions on coal, oil and gas pollution. The goal, of course, is to make everything cheaper and easier for fossil fuel producers. And cheaper fossil fuels are a great incentive for utility companies to slow their switch to renewables.

Wow, I guess with all that great environmental progress since the last muni vote we really don’t need a muni anymore. Let’s just quit and trust the increasingly unregulated Xcel to do the right thing and be our good neighbor. Just because it has a fiduciary duty to maximize its profits for its shareholders doesn’t mean it won’t put the environment first. Oh wait, it does mean that.

Come on, folks. Is there really a single person out there who voted for the muni a few years ago to combat global warming who can look their neighbor in the eye and say that based on where the world is today, a muni is less important now than then? Not and pass a lie detector test they can’t. Now is not the time to kill the muni just because the process has been challenging. That’s exactly the kind of shortsighted apathy that Xcel — the company that has worked tirelessly and spent millions of dollars to make the process challenging — is counting on.

I know that Xcel has promised to provide us with lots of clean energy if we’ll just scrap the muni project. I also know that promise has been laced with fine print that would allow the corporation to back track on its commitment if it doesn’t like the price points of the new energy mix. And realize this: Once we kill the municipalization effort, it is dead effectively forever and we will, indeed, be an example to hundreds of other communities around the country — an example that they shouldn’t try to create a municipal electric utility to fight global warming because even the wealthy, environmentally enlightened community of Boulder, Colorado, couldn’t do it. And that would be a tragedy considering the technological advancements sure to be coming in the next few years.

What if a decade from now it is possible for rooftop solar to power all of Boulder? What happens when neighborhoods are capable of establishing their own micro-grids and storing their power in the super-efficient battery systems that are already in development? Just this week this solar technology is being deployed in storm-torn Puerto Rico to replace the island’s old electric grid that was destroyed by a powerful hurricane, a superstorm which scientists believe was the result of global warming, which is being caused in no small part by irresponsible power generation that increases greenhouse gas emissions. It’s all coming full circle. We aren’t pursuing a muni to fight the potential for possible effects of some future global warming. We are trying to create a muni to fight the current fires, floods and superstorms that are already inundating the planet. Climate change is here now. It’s not some boogyman of the future.

And ask yourself this: When this solar technology is perfected and ready to allow Boulder to produce all of its own electricity from clean sunlight, who do you trust to allow that effort to go forward without years or even decades of costly litigation: the muni you own and control, or Xcel who will once again have every economic incentive in the world to stop us from moving towards this or other technological solutions to energy generation? Do you honestly trust Xcel more than yourselves to do the right thing when the right thing would put Xcel out of business?

And just one more thought. Boulder can never have cheap, publicly owned, high-speed broadband like Longmont if we don’t municipalize and take ownership of our electric power grid infrastructure. I wonder if that has been lost on those trying to kill the muni by way of this election. Somehow I doubt it.

Let’s face it: Big business doesn’t like the idea of democratizing moneymaking commodities even when it is clearly the right thing to do for the people and the planet. The same invisible political forces that are working to keep health care in the hands of private corporations are doing the same on power generation, broadband and everything else. Boulder’s muni represents a dangerous slippery slope to giant monopolies no matter what they’re selling.

So when you go to fill out your ballot between now and Nov. 7, ask yourself this one question: Who do you trust to do the right thing in the fight to save the planet from climate change? Is it Xcel, the giant monopoly regulated (or more accurately unregulated) by Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt, or is it you and your muni?

If your answer is the latter, then vote in favor of ballot measures 2L and 2O. 2L keeps enough money flowing to finish the muni process and 2O gives voters the final say before the City commits to taking on the debt to pay Xcel for its condemned assets. And if you support finishing what you started in the fight against climate change, we’ve endorsed some candidates who agree with you. Please give them your vote.    

    

  • vanillagrrl

    I think you intended to say “environmentally conscious”, not “environmentally conscience”; “waver” rather than “waiver”; “advice” (American English spelling) rather than “advise”; and “publicly” rather than “publically”. But I agree wholeheartedly with your stance. Thank you.

    • Joel Dyer

      Thanks. Long night, big paper, you’re hired.

      • vanillagrrl

        Nicest thing anyone’s said to me all day! I’m interested!

  • Paul Culnan

    Thank you Joel Dyer! Great opinion piece!