State Supreme Court rules against City Light; Utility can't use ratepayers money for global warming good deeds
The state Supreme Court today ruled that Seattle City Light could not undo its greenhouse gas pollution by paying others to perform global warming good deeds.
In a 5-4 decision that reversed a King County Superior Court ruling, the justices ruled that the city utility lacked the authority to use ratepayers’ money to compensate for its planet warming pollution.
Using ratepayer money in this manner is not “sufficiently related to the purpose of supplying electricity,” wrote Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.
In November 2005, City Light had boasted that it was the first publicly owned major utility in the nation to no longer contribute to global warming, that it was “carbon neutral.”
For every pound of greenhouse gas released by the utility, its fleet of vehicles or the power plants it buys from, carbon dioxide emissions were reduced elsewhere by paying for an “offset” of an equal amount.
That meant City Light was spending up to $756,000 a year on biodiesel fuel for Metro buses, garbage trucks and city vehicles; helping pay for Princess Cruises’ ships to switch from using diesel engines while in port to plug into the grid; and by paying DuPont Fluorochemicals to reduce its emissions of Freon gas.
The four dissenting state Supreme Court justices argued that it was within City Light’s authority to pay for greenhouse gas emissions because ratepayers benefit in knowing the utility is environmentally clean and it helps the utility operate more efficiently.
City Light generates the majority of its power from dams fed by streams and melting snowpack. University of Washington researchers have predicted that the snowpack will shrink and melt sooner in the spring as the planet warms due to the build up of heat-trapping pollution.
The Superior Court “found that there was no reason to distinguish between an offset program and reduction of City Light’s own emissions because (greenhouse gases) are immediately mixed in the upper atmosphere upon release and distributed globally,” stated the dissenting opinion by Justice Susan Owens.
The challenge against the utility offset program was brought by a group of four individuals: two retired assistant city attorneys, a former career engineer for City Light and a community activist.
The group already had successfully sued the utility for other expenditures that they deemed inappropriate and not in line with the utility’s fundamental purpose of providing electricity. The so-called “cash-cow claims” included the utility paying for public art displayed in locations not owned by City Light.
“We’re of course pleased by the decision,” said David Jurca, the attorney for the group, of today’s ruling.
“We think that the court got it right,” he said. “Even though reducing greenhouse gases is a good thing and we applaud efforts to do that, as a majority (of justices) held, as a general governmental purpose, it should be paid for by the general population instead of utility ratepayers.”
By Lisa Stiffler
18 January 2007
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