Jerry Brown's administration says it will support a Canadian company's effort to vaporize garbage and turn it into electricity in Monterey County, despite concerns raised by environmentalists.
Plasco Energy Group's $175 million project is at the center of a regulatory dispute over gasification, an emerging technology in which garbage, under intense heat, is converted into a synthetic fuel used to generate electricity.
At issue is whether the Plasco project qualifies as a renewable energy project under state law. The designation is critical to the project's financing, Plasco says, because it will allow it to sell electricity at a premium to utilities that must buy one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
The Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery said under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010 that the Plasco facility could be considered a renewable energy project. But the department reversed its decision last month, rescinding its original opinion while planning an overall review of how it evaluates so-called "waste-to-energy" projects.
Environmentalists had protested the state's original interpretation of the law. They called the gasification technology unproven and said it would release toxic contaminants into the air.
On June 1, the Brown administration suggested it will step in on Plasco's behalf.
In a letter to the company, Nancy McFadden, a senior adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, said Brown's office "will be supportive of legislation during the current session to allow Plasco's project to proceed on a pilot basis and be considered an eligible renewable energy resource under state law."
She added a hand-printed note: "We can make this work."
Brown's office said the Plasco project still will be required to pass environmental reviews. It said it would be unfair to Plasco, which moved forward on a previous administration's blessing, to revoke that approval now.
"The administration felt that it was unfair to change the rules many months after Plasco had been given this letter by the last administration," Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said this afternoon.
The project's opponents fumed. Bradley Angel, director of the San Francisco-based environmental group Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, said McFadden's letter "looks like a love letter ... with a handwritten note."
He accused the Brown administration of "sabotaging" an environmental review of the project by endorsing it before the review is complete. McFadden's letter, Angel said, "completely undermines the integrity and legitimacy of the state-mandated environmental review process that has barely gotten off the ground."
Alisdair McLean, a Plasco vice president, said the project is a clean alternative to filling landfills, and he said the environmental review would address concerns about emissions. He said McFadden's letter "is enough to give us encouragement to keep looking for a way forward."
"We will work with the administration to try to find a way to solve the riddle here in this legislative session," he said.
The Plasco project became a point of contention between Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and former Sen. David Roberti, a Los Angeles Democrat and former pro tem.
When Steinberg's office sided last year against classifying Plasco as a green energy project, Roberti, president of the BioEnergy Producers Association, a lobbying group, accused Steinberg's office of launching a "frontal attack" on the industry.
"The state of California has virtually lost a major opportunity to take a leadership position, indeed to even be a player, in the worldwide initiative to produce renewable energy - both advanced biofuels and electricity - from organic wastes," Roberti wrote Steinberg.
Steinberg responded that current law "does not erect any unique or specific barriers to the construction or operation of gasification facilities."
He wrote, "Rather, the supporters of these technologies wish to be accorded elevated statutory treatment currently reserved for activities such as recycling and renewable energy, which the Legislature and past Governors have held are unique environmental goods."