Lessons in zealous advocacy

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Monday, February 24 2020

Editor's note: You can read the original blog post by Candice Youngblood on the BerkeleyLaw blog.

Part of the value of clinic participation is learning how to advocate for a real-life client, as opposed to the hypothetical clients we deal with in our legal writing courses. But often, clients deviate significantly from our expectations. This is something students cannot fully grasp when tackling hypotheticals in typical law school classes. And while classes on discrimination get us fired up to champion for justice, they cannot flesh out every way justice can manifest for real-life communities.

In response to Assembly Bill 2672, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC or the Commission) opened a proceeding to increase access to affordable energy in the San Joaquin Valley. Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment (CRPE) retained ELC to represent it in that proceeding as part of the Pilot Team. The San Joaquin Valley faces some of the greatest environmental injustices in the state. On December 13, 2018, the Commission approved eleven pilot projects to provide disadvantaged San Joaquin Valley communities with either natural gas pilot projects or electrification pilot projects. The communities chosen for the pilot projects are communities currently relying on wood and propane for their heating and cooking needs, which is expensive, unreliable, and unhealthy.

Before the Commission decided which type of pilots each community would receive, the residents of Allensworth and Seville voted overwhelmingly in favor of natural gas pilots. In its December decision, the Commission gave the green light for Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE) to provide several communities with electrification pilots to replace the wood and propane appliances. The Commission also approved the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) to provide Allensworth and Seville with natural gas pilots if SoCalGas met certain conditions.

As environmentalists, advocating for natural gas over electrification is counterintuitive. But there are two important issues to unpack here. First, Allensworth and Seville are communities that have historically faced discrimination. The administrative record in this proceeding includes letters dating back to 1971, in which Allensworth has been reaching out to decision makers for access to natural gas. For Allensworth residents, these pilot projects are reparations. Other communities have had natural gas for decades. Allensworth and Seville simply want what they have been denied for so long.

The second important issue touches on core environmental justice concepts and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Environmental justice emphasizes the importance of empowering communities to speak for themselves. Relatedly, lawyers are ethically bound to zealous advocacy, and to respect that the client determines the end, while the lawyer chooses the means to achieving that end. Because the community chose natural gas, we as their lawyers must make those requests heard and zealously advocate for natural gas.

Unfortunately, neither Allensworth nor Seville will be receiving natural gas. Each city’s natural gas pilot would cost about $3.7 million more than the electrification projects. The Commission therefore decided that if SoCalGas could secure the funds needed to fill the funding gap for Allensworth and Seville within 60 days, then both communities could receive natural gas pilot projects. If not, Allensworth and Seville would receive electrification appliances from PG&E. SoCalGas explicitly committed to finding funding, such as federal grants, for the Allensworth and Seville natural gas pilot projects. Because SoCalGas failed to find funding within the 60 days, the Commission granted SoCalGas 30 additional days on February 15, 2019.

The Pilot Team zealously advocated for Allensworth and Seville’s natural gas pilots. We tried to assist SoCalGas by hosting conference calls between community-based organizations and SoCalGas. We even met with Congressman TJ Cox’s office—the representative for Allensworth and Seville—in Washington, D.C. to ask that they help SoCalGas find federal funding opportunities. After we spoke with SoCalGas, the company asked the Commission for more time. On March 27, the Commission denied this request because SoCalGas did not appear to have a way to secure funding. The Commission added, however, that Allensworth and Seville could receive natural gas if SoCalGas submitted a letter stating that its shareholders would cover the funding gap. SoCalGas did not submit that letter, so the Commission will move forward with PG&E’s proposals.

Once it became clear that natural gas would no longer be an option for Allensworth and Seville, we called the CRPE organizer who works closely with the communities to break the news to him. He was disappointed but understanding, and it was hard for us to be the bearers of bad news. We continued bearing bad news as we drafted a letter explaining this outcome to the Allensworth and Seville residents. We explained that they would not be getting natural gas pilots, but that they would receive electrification pilots that would still bring significant benefits.

Although I may have joined the clinic with personal preferences for electrification, I am leaving clinic disappointed that our client did not get the natural gas they deserved. This is not, however, the end of our work in Allensworth and Seville. For example, the Pilot Team will continue to advocate for tenant protections from split incentives and bill savings that will mitigate the rebound effect as explained in the Commission’s decision. We will continue to advocate for the most just outcome for the residents of those communities. And we will do so zealously.

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