A Greenwashing New Deal
California burns as desalination lord pays lawmakers and co-opts environmentalists
Global warming is slowly killing Californians and endangering future generations with extreme heat, fire, and drought.
But profits look good for Poseidon Water, California’s ocean-desalination lord, backed by Brookfield, the world-wide $600 billion self-proclaimed “decarbonizing” company that invests in renewable energy, infrastructure, and real estate.
Twenty years of greenwashing, “the dissemination of misleading information that conceals abuse of the environment in order to present a positive public image,” and millions of dollars spent on politicians, environmentalists, legislators, and regulators has paid off, so far.
Poseidon’s $1 billion desal plant in Carlsbad is operational and its proposed $1.4 billion Huntington Beach plant recently received ocean discharge permits from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The HB proposal tentatively comes to the Coastal Commission in November or December, the final step in the regulatory process. If approved then, the Orange County Water District (OCWD) would schedule a vote to approve a contract with Poseidon or not.
The two plants will each produce around 50,000 acre-feet of desalinated drinking water annually.
The projects will not reduce water imports from the State Water Project or the Colorado River—that water will go elsewhere in Southern California.
Regardless of need, San Diego County Water Authority and OCWD ratepayers, by contract, will have to buy Poseidon’s water for 30 – 35 years—at two to three times the cost of water they could have purchased from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Costly to pocket books and environment
Ocean desalination takes far more energy and money to produce than other water sources, especially conservation. Electricity covers 20 percent of the cost of imported water compared to 40 percent of the cost of desalinated ocean water.
Poseidon’s two plants combined will require 8,000 kWh of electricity per acre-foot of water produced, or 448,000,000 kWh of electricity per year for at least 30 years.*
That could power 67,000 homes a year and create 180,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, far beyond the trigger point of 10,000 tons (per project) that requires mandatory mitigation.*
Add to that an accumulated 160 million marine larvae that would be killed every year by Poseidon’s seawater intake systems and an unknown number of marine-life deaths caused by brine discharges that contain 1.5 times the amount of salinity found in regular seawater.
Estimates vary, but in 2006 there were 29 proposed plants, some of them larger than the Carlsbad and HB plants. Dreams fluctuate, and in 2019, there were 12 desalination plants on California’s coast, most of them small and some working intermittently according to need.
Poseidon says its projects are “100% carbon-neutral, cost effective, environmentally sound,” and “climate resilient” (as opposed to “climate dependent”).
Poseidon and its allies evoke environmental protection and environmental justice narratives with the help of co-opted environmental groups, front groups, and lobbyists like former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.
But Poseidon’s claims are like its ocean desalination filters—full of holes (more on that to come).
Greenbacks for greenwashing
Estimating Poseidon’s greenwashing expenditures is hard. Its corporate money trail has many tributaries and blind spots. For now, here are a few random samples of Poseidon and Brookfield’s attempts to gild the water lily:
Lobbying in state by Poseidon (2019 – 2020): $491,524 (2021)
Campaign contributions in state by Brookfield and Poseidon (2018 – 2020): $273,463
Campaign contributions in state by Brookfield and Poseidon (1999 – 2020): $1,889,744
Eleven years ago, Scott Maloni, Poseidon’s community organizer, said that his company had spent $60 million developing its Carlsbad and Huntington Beach projects—an unverified number that could have doubled by now.
Not reported are payouts for:
“consultants” (legal-loophole term for lobbyists with fewer reporting requirements) and other lobbyists like former environmentalist and U.S. senator, Barbara Boxer and former State Assembly Speaker, Fabian Nunez;
consultant and former Huntington Beach mayor and Bolsa Chica wetlands activist, Victor Leipzig;
celebrity environmental attorney, Robert Sulnick, and his Poseidon’s front group, OC Wise;
Poseidon commissioned push-polls;
membership fees for business organizations that support Poseidon
Running parallel to Poseidon’s greenwashing efforts, labor allies give tens of thousands of dollars to pro Poseidon political candidates and have started an environmental justice front group called Water is a Right.
*Calculations are based on figures provided by the State Water Plan, California Coastal Commission, and the California Energy Commission.