Don’t trade pennies for your planet

Why we must municipalize our electric utility


There is an old political joke in my business in which a reporter who doesn’t much care for a particular candidate shouts out at a press conference, “Do you still beat your wife?” The candidate, who of course has never done such a despicable thing, quickly responds that the whole thing is a vicious lie. The next day, all the headlines read, “Candidate denies accusations of spousal abuse.” Of course, he goes on to lose the election.

I suspect that this old story is well-known over at Xcel.

For months now, the company has been shouting out one accusation after another about the city’s inability to effectively run its own electric utility. And, proving that all humor is based in reality, each accusation or claim of city incompetence is duly followed by a daily newspaper headline and story consisting of the city refuting Xcel’s most recent accusation, regardless of how baseless or insignificant it may have been.

While this he said/she said reporting may seem like a fair approach by the media, who are, after all, just reporting what is being said by both sides, it isn’t.

In fact, it is exactly what Xcel needs to hang on to its Boulder customers.

I wish I could say it isn’t so, but we live in a world where most of what the majority of voters understand about important issues has been derived from 30-second sound bites and 80-point headlines. And don’t kid yourself; this is just as true in Boulder.

Xcel knows what it’s doing. The truth is, in my opinion, the company isn’t trying to persuade everyone in Boulder that it’s the good guy, the right choice. It might sound like that, but Xcel knows what it needs to keep hold of its Boulder customers, and it isn’t much. Remember, the last time around, municipalization passed by an eyelash, less than 100 votes.

Xcel is doing exactly what any good trial lawyer would do in a high-profile criminal case. It is trying municipalization in the court of public opinion before the voters’ pencils ever make a mark. The company understands that it doesn’t have to prove that it is the best choice for the environment or that it can sell its electricity for less than a city utility could. It simply has to make that claim in the media as often as possible in order to generate the slightest reasonable doubt in the public’s mind with regard to the city’s ability to provide cheap, green electricity.

Unfortunately, many who will be voting soon on the Xcel-backed, Xcel poll-tested ballot initiative simply view this daily debate as proof that there must be something to the arguments being made by both sides. Bingo, Xcel wins, because a few hundred people change their minds because they’re afraid their electric bill might go up a buck or two a month.

You may recall that Boulder Weekly endorsed municipalization before the original vote. You may also recall that we wrote a very long, and I believe very thorough, piece on municipalization a few months back that some folks interpreted as our having taken a different position. We haven’t.

In that article we raised questions about the city’s plan to start an electric utility. Our biggest complaint with the city was that we found it to be too cavalier about its upcoming battle with Xcel.

Our questions about Xcel’s legal presuppositions regarding what should and could be taken by the city were dismissed as irrelevant. City attorneys spoke with confidence in how their interpretation of the law was flawless and how the giant utility company with virtually unlimited resources didn’t have a prayer.

I think we can all agree now that the city was naive when it came to how easily it thought this battle would be won.

While the city was working on its business model and dreaming of wind turbines, Xcel was poll-testing ballot language that, while sounding like an innocent exercise in democracy, is nothing more than tricky language to kill municipalization in Boulder once and for all.

You don’t have to be right to win in this world, and we need to acknowledge that and respond accordingly. Boulder can’t afford to be the guy who gets killed by a car while crossing the street legally in the crosswalk, and who then spends eternity shouting about how he had been in the right. Being right isn’t worth jack if you’re dead. Xcel knows how to win, and it doesn’t intend to play by the city’s rules.

It’s time to move beyond the daily headlines that do nothing but benefit Xcel’s ability to create reasonable doubt about city municipalization.

Can the city run an electric utility company? Of course it can. It just has to hire people who know what they are doing and things will go fine.

Can the city create a utility that is more effective at combating global warming? Yes it can, and it will.

Out of fear of losing its Boulder customers, Xcel now claims it can be greener faster than the city.

Intent matters. If Xcel says it can be better for the planet than the city, then it should’ve been doing it a long time ago.

I remember back in 1998 when BW first broke the story about how Public Service Company’s (now Xcel) gas storage unit in an old mine south of Rocky Flats was leaking gas into shallow geologic formations and even nearby water wells. It was pretty obvious what was happening, and yet the company denied that its gas storage unit was the problem, even while it was buying up the contaminated lands. This went on for another five years, until the building boom encroached so close that it became clear that closing the storage unit was a cheaper option than dealing with potential lawsuits from homeowners. Five years after our first report, the company suddenly admitted that the unit was leaking and gas was migrating.

The lakes around Xcel’s Valmont Station coal-fired plant on the east side of town occasionally discharge into the local watershed. They are also in contact with the groundwater aquifer to the east. We know that lead and other heavy metals from the historic Valmont Butte milling operations on the land now owned by the city were intentionally discharged into the lakes for decades. We know that coalfired plants create their own toxins, as does the fly ash from burning coal, which is now being dumped directly above the lakes to the north.

What we don’t know is what contaminants are in the water. We only know that Xcel claims that it tests the water itself and everything is just fine. Why can’t we get the water contamination information BW has asked for from an independent source? Just because the government isn’t requiring the company to test for all toxins in the lakes and make the results public doesn’t mean that Xcel, now that it is a huge supporter of all things green, couldn’t voluntarily do so.

Is this really the company that Boulder should be putting its trust in to combat global warming? I doubt it. If the ballot measure backed by Xcel passes and the city can’t municipalize, there will no longer be any leverage to push the company to be greener, faster, and without leverage, Xcel’s history says it likes to take its time to do the right thing. The city may not be perfect, but its intent to be better environmental stewards is real, and will still be real even after the election. I’m not sure the same can be said for Xcel.

A recent report by the world’s scientific community claims that global warming is much worse than we thought. Cities like New York and states like Florida could literally be under water in 90 years if we don’t act radically right now, and it could already be too late.

So please, can we stop arguing over whether it’s Xcel or the city that will be able to provide a kilowatt of electricity for two cents less than its rival?

I really don’t give a damn about those pennies and neither should anyone else. They are as inconsequential as all of the arguments being made both for and against municipalization that are not centered on global warming.

We need to municipalize our electric utility because the city and the people of Boulder are always going to be more committed to saving our planet and our children’s future than a giant, publicly traded utility company.

The choice is really that simple. Everything else is a distraction that serves Xcel’s purposes.