In summary

San Luis Obispo received a dangerous threat, if the city council voted on an ordinance to encourage construction of all-electric buildings.

By Heidi Harmon, Special to CalMatters

Heidi Harmon is the mayor of San Luis Obispo, Hharmon@slocity.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

The COVID-19 pandemic invites us to grapple with our interconnectedness as we rely on each other to keep ourselves safe and supported. Yet amid efforts to collaborate and creatively solve problems, Southern California Gas Co. is capitalizing on this crisis to bully and to sow division. 

That was the case when the city of San Luis Obispo, where I lead as mayor, received an unusual threat from the chairman of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, a group that SoCalGas created and funds. The chairman threatened a protest with “no social distancing” as he planned to bus in “hundreds and hundreds of pissed off people potentially adding to this pandemic,” if the city council voted on an ordinance to encourage construction of all-electric buildings that would not use gas appliances. 

We took the threat seriously – we care about the health of our community and those workers – and removed the agenda item. But this situation was a continuation of a series of bullying tactics and misinformation that has been deployed by SoCalGas and other fossil fuel interests since August. 

They want to divide our community over our efforts to address climate change and improve public health – and it’s something we simply won’t stand for, especially right now. 

Fossil fuel executives have cultivated a toxic culture in which they fight progress by any means necessary – at the cost of public health, public dollars, their own workers and the precious time we have left to transition to clean energy and cut climate pollution before it’s too late. 

I am as concerned about the future of SoCalGas workers as I am about the climate crisis. And I look forward to working with them to create a world where their jobs are as safe as our future. These two issues are intimately linked. That’s why California is already engaged in a long-term transition off of gas – which will help us plan for a just transition for gas utility workers over this decades-long process. 

Yet SoCalGas has chosen to fight rather than participate, and instead has become one of California’s primary obstacles to local and statewide efforts to plan for the future of their workers as we move to a clean-energy economy powered by zero-emission technologies. 

And unfortunately, California’s Public Utility Commission, which is tasked with overseeing the behavior of regulated utilities like SoCalGas, has not stopped them. Last summer it was revealed that SoCalGas and Calfornians for Balanced Energy Solutions had violated a number of laws in their efforts to fight building electrification. It’s now been nine months, and still the utility has not been held to account. That inaction allowed my city to continue to be bullied. 

We are living through a terribly difficult time. People are frightened for their health. More than 30 million people have lost their jobs since March. Wildfire season is coming. We must address these compounding crises with compassionate, proactive solutions – protecting public health, putting people back to work in the clean economy and phasing out fossil fuels to combat the climate crisis. 

We need to show workers that the people of California will not allow them to be sacrificed. With a Green New Deal, they won’t be. Clean technologies like offshore wind require some of the same skills in use by oil and gas workers. There can be a rich future for the fossil fuel workforce so long as we aren’t prevented from planning for their transition by corporate executives’ obstruction.  

Coronavirus has proven we can afford the Green New Deal that puts workers first, and that we cannot afford to delay action any longer. It’s proven that people, when tested, can band together for the good of all. This is the spirit we need to carry forward. Workers, CEOs, activists, rate payers, elected officials – our fates are woven together. By supporting climate policies that lower emissions while supporting workers to move into careers in clean energy sectors that will exist for decades to come, we can thrive. 

I call on state leadership to be part of this vision for a prosperous California by ensuring that SoCalGas leaves their schoolyard bullying behind and joins us in creating a better world where – in times of crisis – we turn toward each other and not on each other. 

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Heidi Harmon is the mayor of San Luis Obispo, Hharmon@slocity.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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