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On environment, mixed reviews for Schwarzenegger

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a victory lap this week. On the stage of the Mondavi Center in Davis at his third Climate Action Summit, he shared the stage with such luminaries as pioneering chimp researcher Jane Goodall, actor Harrison Ford and, via satellite, British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The leaders of Brazil and Mexico signed a memorandum of understanding with Schwarzenegger pledging to preserve tropical forests to prevent climate change. And everyone had great things to say about AB 32, the landmark law to fight global warming that the governor signed in 2006 — and on which he has staked his legacy as the most environment-friendly in California’s history.

But Democratic legislators and some environmentalists tell a more nuanced story, one filled with the kinds of fights and disagreements that always come with the legislative process.

On the one hand, they praised a governor who stuck his neck out, publicly championed environmental causes and did some of his best work on the nitty-gritty issues that don’t always get much attention.

On the other hand, they say the story behind the scenes was not always what it seemed — especially when it comes to the policy areas that Schwarzenegger has claimed as his major accomplishments.

It is a contention that leaves some on the governor’s staff bristling.

“You mean the greatest environmental legacy in the history of California?” asked Dan Pellissier, one of the governor’s chief environmental advisers.

“Is ‘legacy’ in quotes?” quipped former Senator Sheila Kuehl, a liberal Democrat who represented Los Angeles and frequently clashed with the governor on health care reform and other issues.

In some ways, Schwarzenegger’s environmental legacy is like his governorship in microcosm, embracing the middle road in a partisan environment. Leading green-minded Democrats took him to task in the areas where they disagreed. Most Republicans disliked that he was taking on environmental issues at all.  That, in a nutshell, can describe the Schwarzenegger governorship as a whole.

Terry Tamminen, president of the nonprofit Seventh Generation Advisors and former secretary of Cal/EPA, said it was important to keep some perspective.

“He’s certainly done more than Gray Davis did in his time in office,” Tamminen said. “I’m a Democrat. I supported Gray. But I was very disappointed that he was not greener.”

Again, Kuehl begs to differ. She noted that Schwarzenegger is basing much of his legacy on his championing of AB 32, authored by then-Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, in 2006. But Davis signed Pavley’s first greenhouse gas bill — AB 1493, regulating mobile sources of carbon — in 2002, and in some environmental circles this is considered the more groundbreaking law.

“Why isn’t that the greatest legacy?” she asked.

Certainly, the governor can point to a long list of environmental accomplishments.

This includes an aggressive target for renewable energy, protecting California’s fuel-efficiency standards, protecting the coast, permitting immense solar- and wind-energy projects, approving a low carbon fuel standard and, especially, his passionate defense of AB 32 against Proposition 23, the failed November initiative that would have suspended it indefinitely.
Many also credited his very public role championing environmental causes.

“I look at the progress California has made on environmental issue in the past seven years, and it compares favorably to any state in the nation,” said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.
But critics can say that he could have gone much further – but didn’t.

This includes areas such as restricting dangerous chemicals, not pursuing taxes on oil companies, a lack of support for public transit, threats to cut most of the state parks funding during budget cuts and a failure to fight another November initiative, Proposition 26, which many environmentalists say will make it harder to enforce environmental laws.

Others say that some of the problems with his environmental stewardship took place behind the scenes, when it came to negotiations over who got to draft and enforce the rules that come after legislation is passed.
“These kinds of arcane details make people glaze over,” Kuehl said. “People just want the sound bite that he is some kind of green hero.”

AB 32 was written by Pavley when she was in the Assembly. According to her and several legislators, Schwarzenegger threatened to veto the bill several times late in negotiations. She said the administration wanted a more “market-based” mechanism not supported by Democrats, including cap and trade provisions. This ended up in a debate over the use of one word or another.

“I held firm on the final language that said CARB ‘may’ adopt market-based mechanisms, not ‘shall,’” Pavley said.

She said Schwarzenegger also wanted his own Climate Action Team to implement the bill, while she wanted it controlled by the California Air Resources Board.

There was also the issue of an “off-ramp,” an ability to suspend the law in hard economic times, something Pavley said was pushed by the governor’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy. That “off-ramp” stayed in the bill — and many have given the governor credit for not using it, under heavy pressure from business groups, in the current economic downturn.

But do these “arcane details” detract from his legacy? People in the administration say the behind-the-scenes negotiations around AB 32 should not.

“It’s just like any other piece of legislation,” Tamminen said. “There was back and forth. It was better for that.”

Pellissier took issue with the idea that the changes the governor wanted, such as inserting cap and trade, “weakened” the bill.

Another key piece of his legacy, the governor says, is Green Chemistry, a term that describes the years-long effort to study and classify chemicals used in California, loosely modeled on a similar effort in Europe. Again, this was a first-in-the-nation kind of effort.

Yet some Democrats say the initiative was used to stop bills that would ban or limit chemicals they believed were an important near-term health threat.

Sens. Simitian and Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, for example, got letters from CalEPA or agencies operating under them opposing the “chemical-by-chemical” bills they had proposed. Leno has pushed multiple bills that would ban brominated fire retardants used in furniture and bedding in California that he said research shows are major carcinogens.

Pellissier said the governor wanted a single, comprehensive, science-based process. He also said Schwarzenegger was not ordering the agencies to send these letters.

“What the governor confronted was science by press release,” Pellissier said.

“During the four years I provided scientific support for Mark Leno’s legislation to change this standard, the governor’s gatekeeper told me he did not want to hear about the peer-reviewed body of science showing harm from the chemicals used to meet the standard and its lack of benefit,” countered Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar at U.C. Berkeley and the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “He said he believed the science produced by the bromine industry.”

But the governor did sign some chemical bans. For instance, one bill removed chemicals called phthalates from children’s toys. This year, he signed Pav
ley’s SB 929, removing toxic cadmium from children’s jewelry.

Schwarzenegger also shared some of the glory with Pavley, bringing her to Washington, D.C., in 2008 for hearings when he was arguing that the feds should allow California to keep its stronger vehicle efficiency standards — standards which are now in effect nationwide.

Simitian praised the governor for acting on areas that aren’t “sexy,” such as signing a bill barring discharges from ships that could introduce invasive species into California waters.
He said the governor’s support of the coasts — as shown in his 2004 Ocean Action Plan and support for the Marine Life Protection Act — are to be commended. And, of course, there is the governor’s executive order pushing the state towards 33 percent renewable energy by 2020.

But he also said, “When you got down to the second and third levels of the administration, that support wasn’t always there.” Most of the governor’s appointees were also Republicans, who “might or might not have shared the governor’s vision. That’s why party matters.”

Bill Magavern, the director of Sierra Club California, praised Schwarzenegger’s defense of AB 32. But he also said he didn’t do enough to fight Prop. 26, which demands a two-thirds vote to raise local fees. Many in the environmental community feel this will make laws harder to enforce, and could hurt the implementation of some aspects of AB 32.

“[CARB director] Mary Nichols doesn’t think that Prop. 26 has anything to do with AB 32,” Pellissier said, saying the “reachback” provisions in the initiative won’t affect the bill.

Magavern and others have also noted that many in the environmental community took their eye off the ball when it came to Proposition 26. Yet he also called the governor “olive drab” for his raids of public transit funds to help balance the budget.

“He’s never seemed to understand that if you want to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and clean up the air, you need to support public transit,” Magavern said. “Instead he raided the funding for public transit repeatedly.”

The governor didn’t want to cut transit funds, or park funds for that matter, according to several in the administration. But, in the midst of the worst budget situation in decades, “We had to live within our means,” as Pellissier put it.

“The only other option was raising taxes,” said the governor’s spokesman, Aaron McLear, when asked about the proposed cuts to parks.

Which is exactly what many Democrats wanted. Leno said that this was one characteristic of the governor, sticking to his environmental beliefs mainly when it didn’t offend the business community.

“What the [California] Chamber [of Commerce] wanted, the Chamber got,” Leno said.

In any case, an evaluation of the “Green Governor” could easily fill a book, if not several, and it probably will. So, seven years later, where does California stand on environmental policy? Overall, likely much further down the road, from an environmentalist’s perspective, than it would have been had Schwarzenegger not been governor — but also probably further behind in some areas.

And where will it be four years from now?

“We’re certainly hoping that Jerry Brown will be better,” Magavern said.


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