How The City avoided burning even more fossil fuels 

In sports, it’s well-documented that some of the best trades are the ones that are never made. And in politics, it’s a given that some of the smartest moves are the ones involving measured deliberation.

And so it is that we’re reminded again why in San Francisco the common knee-jerk reaction to policy questions gets people in all sorts of trouble, and why agendas are best left for the printed page.

Last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that The City had reached an agreement with the state’s power-supply authority to shut down the filthy, polluting Mirant power plant in Potrero Hill. It was an accord years in the making, filled with dramatic twists that embroiled most of The City’s top officials at various times, costing at least one her job.

Yet, the bottom line is that if more steady hands hadn’t been involved and a majority of the Board of Supervisors had gotten its way, San Francisco wouldn’t be looking at running a clean form of renewable energy but would have signed on to build three new fossil fuel-burning plants at the Mirant site with a requirement to keep the polluting turbines running for the next 30 years.

As bad ideas go, it doesn’t get worse, so it’s fair to say that San Franciscans can breathe a lot easier these days and mean it. But the story proves a cautionary tale for those who would pursue their politics at any price, since one of the primary reasons a majority of supervisors pursued the polluting peakers plan is because it would have allowed The City to jump into the public-power business, green solutions be damned.

To be fair, when the plan to shut down the Mirant plant was first being explored, the California Independent System Operator, which makes decision on the state’s power supply, said San Francisco would have to build turbine combustion peakers in order to maintain a minimum power level. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and Newsom originally embraced the idea, and so did a majority of supervisors, led by Sophie Maxwell, who was desperate to get the polluting smokestack in her district shut down.

But after considerable debate, Jared Blumenfeld, then head of The City’s Department of the Environment, broke with the consensus view at a meeting in the Mayor’s Office and suggested that San Francisco should look at a nonpolluting alternative to the peakers. And for having the audacity to not bring a united front to the plan, then-Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, famous for his “payback is a bitch” statements to his opponents, quietly introduced a measure that would have gutted Blumenfeld’s entire department.

That would have eliminated one department and cost 64 people their jobs, proving once again that public discourse on controversial matters often is only allowed when you’re on the “right” side of an issue. In this case, only a ruling by the City Attorney’s Office staved off Peskin’s heavy-handed move, and the debate continued, with new attempts by Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier to seek an alternative solution.

That cause was aided mightily by editorial campaigns pointing out the obvious: Why shut down an old plant and replace it with three new ones that would continue spewing pollutants into a neighborhood that had worked for years to rid itself of a public health hazard?

Newsom continued to negotiate with Cal-ISO to see if The City’s power needs could be met by ongoing changes, such as a new electrical cable across the Bay. Yet, those seeking nonpolluting alternatives were met with stout resistance from a majority of supervisors and even SFPUC head Susan Leal, who was now part of the public-power brigade clamoring for the peakers.

“The idea of seeking a solution without any new fossil fuel generation was a real sea change from where we were,” said Tony Winnicker, the mayor’s new press spokesman who was at the SFPUC during the height of the controversy.

But time, not partisan politics, proved to be San Francisco’s ally. Cal-ISO ultimately concluded that The City’s electrical needs could be met without the new peakers and the agency determined that The City could shut down the Mirant plant this year. As a result, San Francisco won’t be running polluting turbines for the next three decades and paying hundreds of millions for the privilege.

Those pushing for that proposal proved to be completely politically incorrect. And it should give officials pause when they pursue narrow-minded legislation designed to drive a particular view or punish individuals — just the kind of proposals we get on a regular basis from supervisors. Everyone can be happy with the outcome, but it’s worth noting just how close San Francisco came to embracing a terrible idea.

They were calling it environmental justice. They got that wrong, too.

Ken Garcia appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Examiner. Check out his blog at sfexaminer.com/opinion or e-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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