Governor rejects climate-change institute at UC

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has sought to build an international image as an environmental champion in the fight against climate-changing carbon emissions, rejected an unprecedented attempt to create the first-of-its-kind research institute into reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposal, authored by Senate Leader Don Perata, a Democrat, would have created the California Climate Change Institute at the University of California. The institute would have been financed, in part, with roughly a $1.20-a-year levy on millions of private and public utility customers. The institute would have had an annual budget in the neighborhood of  $50 million and financed research into the causes and solutions of global warming, a phenomena that many scientists believe is an irreversible result of modern industrial expansion.

In vetoing the bill, SB 1762, the Republican governor agreed with the state Chamber of Commerce, the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, the major retailers and the California Taxpayers Association, among others, who opposed the bill.

The governor said he was unhappy that the bill placed greenhouse-gas research “entirely within the UC system. Doing so does not recognize the role that the other segments of California’s higher education system can provide, not only for climate change research, but for the development and deployment of new technologies that will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and keep California at the forefront of these emerging technologies.”

The governor, however, did not mention that “other segments of California’s higher-education system” were, in fact, in favor of the institute, including the California State University and the community college system.

The governor also said the bill was “premature” because the Air Resources Board was working on its own greenhouse gas plan-it’s due to be released Friday – and that it blocks greenhouse gas research in other state agencies, such as the California Energy Commission and the ARB.

“This is ill-advised as it may deprive the state from being able to receive federal funding for projects that must be administered by particular state agencies. It would be a disservice to Californians…”the governor wrote in his official veto message.

The governor’s action on the legislation – one of the most important greenhouse gas bills to reach his desk in 2008 – followed months of Capitol infighting.

The bill would have set up a powerful czar over greenhouse gas emission research whose PUC term expires at the end of 2008 and who would have held sway over grants and research funneled through the academia-based institute. The supporters of the plan include Peevey and the University of California, where the institute would be headquartered.

In addition to the ratepayers’ fee, the California Climate Change Institute would have been financed with about $12 million worth – about half – of the natural gas fees that currently go to an Energy Commission research program known as PIER. The institute’s total budget would have been about $500 million dollars over the next decade. The intention was to woo federal matching money, too – a likely prospect because of the federal government’s infusion of cash into carbon emission research. Since the goal of the institute, which was written into the legislation, was to get matching money for 100 percent of its income, the CCC1 would have had authority over $1 billion.

But the controversy surrounding Perata’s bill wasn’t just related to greenhouse gases or carbon emissions or science or global warming.

It was related to money and power, a familiar tale in the Capitol.

The bill would have made the institute the undisputed leader of California’s greenhouse gas research, a position of national and even international significance. It cut into funding from a program administered by the California Energy Commission – the CEC was not pleased with this and fought the bill – and shifted the money directly to the institute. It effectively prohibited – as the governor said – the CEC, and others, from doing future greenhouse gas programs in order to protect the institute’s turf. The president of the University of California would have selected the institute’s executive director, who in turn would have had the power to write the institute’s charter and decide grants.

The executive director’s hiring would have been ratified by the institute’s “leadership council,” comprised of ranking members of the bureaucracy and appointees of the governor, Senate and Assembly. The executive director would have run the institute and approve spending and grants, with the Legislature’s authorization.

Not surprisingly, the strongest support for the institute came from former PUC President Michael Peevey and the University of California, joined by the state university system, community colleges, the PUC’s own independent ratepayer advocate the University of Southern California and the Building and Construction Trades Council of California, among others.

“We supported this bill because we believe that the emerging green economy and greenhouse gas reduction goals will require a skilled workforce that builds upon the traditional skill sets that drove the 20th Century economy, and which were taught in traditional vocational coursework,” said an analysis by the Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella organization for an array of construction groups. “Skills like electrical, construction, machining, auto tech, heating ventilation and air conditioning and others form the basis necessary to integrate carbon-reducing technologies into our state’s infrastructure and economy.”

For some, the institute was top heavy with politics and light on science.

“The bottom line is you’ve got to take political influence out of it,” said Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Riverside, vice chairman of the Senate Energy Committee and a key player in the debate over the institute.

Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico, the vice chairman of the Assembly Energy Committee, offered similar sentiments. Like Dutton, Keene voted against the bill.

“It is completely backwards. I thought we would have a privately driven, scientific vision for this, not one that is politically oriented. This was not going to be a government-driven policy,” he said, adding that he questioned the preponderance of political appointees on the leadership council. “I serve with these members and I like them very much, but they are not experts.”

Industry, too, was skeptical.

Creating the institute “would significantly detract from current energy and climate change R&D (research and development) efforts by transferring funds from the Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) natural gas funds administered by the Energy Commission,” said a business coalition opposing the institute.

“Elimination of these funds for these projects would hamper the ability of the state to develop the necessary technologies for a more efficient and reliable natural gas sector.” The coalition includes the Western States Petroleum Association, Cal-Tax, and the manufacturers and builders’ trade groups.

The plan was supported by majority Democrats and a number of the Democrats’ powerful political allies, including the institutions of higher education and some in organized labor.

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