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Who decides on greenhouse gases: Voters or lawmakers?

A smog-tinged view in black and white of Century City, Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles. (Photo: Trekandshoot, via Shutterstock)

“The fundamental things apply … As time goes by.”

That lyric from the classic film “Casablanca” could certainly apply today in the continuing, fundamental battle between environmentalists and a major part of California’s business community over legislation containing stricter measures to curb greenhouse gases.

It’s a familiar fight in the Capitol: Oil companies and their allies say jobs and Californians’ ability to get from place to place at reasonable cost are at stake, which can have a dramatic impact on lower income workers.

Environmentalist say the future of the planet is what it’s all about, starting in California.

Ultimately, the issue may be decided by millions of voters — not Sacramento lawmakers.

California emitted 353 metric tons of carbon dioxide — a key element of greenhouse gases — in  2013, the second highest total in the U.S. after Texas.

The specific battleground is SB 32, written by the Legislature’s leading environmental advocate, state Sen. Fran Pavley, a Democrat whose 27th District encompasses parts of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties.  It would set a target of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below the 1990 level by 2030. Deciding on the specific reductions would be up to the California Air Resources Board, which would determine what the 1990 levels were and reduce today’s emission levels through regulations. The Aug. 19 version of Pavley’s bill can be seen here.

It would also require the ARB to recommend to the governor and Legislature how emission reductions could be achieved beyond 2050. The bill extends the provisions of Pavley’s AB 32 of 2006, the landmark set up the original emissions targets. A corollary of that law was the creation of so-called “cap-and-trade” auctions to sell credits, or allowances, that allow companies to continue to operate as they ratchet down on their emissions. A crucial piece of the environmental debate now under way in the Capitol is whether the cap-and-trade auctions, which have provided revenue to an array of projects, will continue.

California emitted 353 metric tons of carbon dioxide — a key element of greenhouse gases — in  2013, the second highest total in the U.S. after Texas, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The battle over the Pavley bill has all the elements familiar in the Capitol.

There are entreaties by powerful lobbyists.  There are behind-closed-doors conferences with the governor over the possibility of amending Pavley’s bill to preserve California’s cap-and-trade program.  The governor’s office has admitted that discussions over amendments are going on, but has said little beyond that.  Experienced Capitol types, however, expect something to emerge, sometime, somehow, even if right now no one knows what shape a final legislative proposal might take.

Brown’s office has, in fact, filed papers with the secretary of state for a “Californians for a Clean Environment” potential 2018 ballot measure.

Amendments would be nothing new to SB 32; in repeated efforts to make it more palatable to its opponents, the bill has been amended at least eight times in its bumpy passage from the state Senate to the Assembly, where it currently rests.  SB 32 has been paired with Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia’s AB 197, now before the Senate.

As the talks involving Pavley, other legislators, lobbyists and the governor’s office continue, there is the possibility that a giant, negotiate-it-into-submission piece of legislation might emerge dealing with cap-and-trade, Pavley’s emission-reduction goals and some form of economic protection for the oil industry.  There are many moving parts, however, and the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on Aug. 31.

The governor’s executive secretary, Nancy McFadden (no relation to the author), has raised the possibility of a ballot initiative if there is no legislative movement on Jerry Brown’s environmental goals.

Brown’s office has, in fact, filed papers with the secretary of state for a “Californians for a Clean Environment” potential 2018 ballot measure. Mentioning a ballot initiative is, of course, a time-honored way of prodding legislative action.

Pavley was not available for an interview — her staff said she was spending most of her time on the floor during the Legislature’s rush to deal with bills before adjournment — but in a statement, she argued that environmental legislation has improved, not harmed, the California economy.

“Our climate policies have also spurred investment and innovation in the private sector,” the statement declared. “Since 2006, we’ve received over $30 billion in clean energy venture capital, created hundreds of thousands of new jobs in clean technology, and become the undisputed nationwide leader in this field.”

“SB 32 ignores the litigation, market uncertainty and costly regulations created by an unelected agency and instead grants the same agency broad new authority out to 2030.” — Dorothy Rothr0ck

Pavley also argues that despite legislative recalcitrance, the public supports SB 32, citing a July report from the Public Policy Institute of California.

PPIC said, “When Californians are asked if they favor or oppose the law requiring the state to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, (Pavley’s original target date) 69 percent are in favor (19% oppose, 13% don’t know). Among likely voters, 62 percent favor the law.”

But the PPIC added, there is “a striking partisan divide. Majorities of Democrats (80%) and independents (56%) favor the law, compared to 44 percent of Republicans. When the survey first asked this question in 2006, support was similar across parties (65% Republicans, 67% Democrats, 68% independents).”

Furthermore, Pavley says, her legislation is backed by “ … local governments, low-income community organizations, businesses, environmentalists, labor, faith-based groups, former legislative leaders, editorial boards across the state, and 27 legislative co-authors.”

Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager, philanthropist and environmentalist, has been running television ads touting California’s success in battling pollution and in effect saying oil companies are ignoring damage to health to protect their profits.  There is persistent speculation that Steyer, a 59-year-old Democrat, is eyeing a possible run for governor in 2018.

“The state Air Resources Board was granted nearly unlimited power to impose whatever regulations to achieve the goal that they deemed necessary.” — Rob Lapsley.

Pavley’s bill is harmful to the economy, says Dorothy Rothrock, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.

“SB 32 ignores the litigation, market uncertainty and costly regulations created by an unelected agency and instead grants the same agency broad new authority out to 2030,” Rothrock wrote in an email to Capitol Weekly. “At the same time, new manufacturing investments and job creation in California is seriously lagging other states. Before setting a goal for 2030, legislators should protect California’s economy by analyzing and fixing the current program and directing ARB to bring a plan back to the Legislature for approval.”

Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, agrees.

“When California adopted Assembly Bill 32 10 years ago to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the state made an important milestone in the fight against global climate change,” he said in a written statement.

“But the state Air Resources Board was granted nearly unlimited power to impose whatever regulations to achieve the goal that they deemed necessary and  Senate Bill 32 would extend that unchecked authority to the Board through 2030, with even more stringent emission reduction targets,” Lapsley said.

Sam Chung, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said the group did not wish to speak on the record, citing a desire not to upset delicate negotiations by issuing a public statement.

WSPA has run a digital advertisement from a WSPA program called the the “California Drivers Alliance,”  saying: “Don’t let bureaucrats (presumably the state Air Resources Board) waste our clean air dollars: Sign up to keep our Legislature in control of California’s clean air public policy.” (The online ad has appeared on Capitol Weekly’s site, among others).

So far, there seems to be few outward signs of movement.  Unless the secret negotiations produce some sort of compromise in the coming days, it’s possible everyone may keep talking until the wee hours before the official legislative midnight adjournment hour.

Buckle up.

Ed’s Note: Corrects spelling of Pavley, 17th graf.

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