Major Calif. Climate Bills Hinge on Moderate Democratic Holdouts

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – Two California climate change bills calling for a 50 percent reduction in vehicle fuel use and expansion of renewable energy are in limbo, facing holdouts by moderate Democrats days before a critical deadline.
     Despite support from Gov. Jerry Brown and a host of Washington officials, moderate Democrats are withholding support of the bills written by Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon.
     The Democratic holdouts, mainly representing smaller Central Valley economic districts, say the bills will decimate agriculture, which depends on petroleum.
     The proposed fuel cuts also ignited the oil lobby, which paid for commercials calling the bills the “California Gas Restriction Act of 2015,” and setting the scene for a small town versus big city environmental squabble.
     Senate Bill 350 mandates a 50 percent cut in fuel use by 2030 and a 50 percent increase in the state’s use of renewable energy. The “Climate Leadership Bills” breezed through the state Senate and three Assembly committees and await a full Assembly vote this week.
     Democrats control 65 percent of the Assembly but an estimated 20 moderate Democrats have not committed to the bills and could combine with Republicans to crash de Leon’s ambitious legislation.
     If passed, the bills would send a message to the world that California is committed to leading the nation in sustainable energy, de Leon said.
     “This package of bills represents the most far reaching effort to fight climate change in the history of our nation,” De Leon in June.
     Environmental reform has been a major focus for the governor this year, including a recent trip to the Vatican where he discussed climate change with the Pope. Brown also hosted a group of international leaders at the Capitol in May, arranging a non-binding pact aimed at drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
     Brown and de Leon will represent California at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris this fall and highlight the state’s greenhouse gases reduction plan.
     Last week lawmakers sent Brown a bill requiring the state to divest its public pension funds from coal companies. New York and Massachusetts are considering similar bills. Norway recently voted to divest $880 billion in coal investments.
     As the oil industry barrages Californians with warnings about gas rationing and mileage limits for drivers if the bills pass, polls show residents support increased climate change reform.
     A recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, found 73 percent of adults support petroleum reduction laws, and 62 percent feel global warming is already having an impact on the state’s climate.
     Brown and California lawmakers have found an improbable ally in the Catholic Church and Pope Francis. This summer the Pope issued a 192-page climate change action plan , imploring church leaders to back environmental issues. The Pope’s call to action spurred California Catholic leaders into voicing support for the proposed bills last week in hopes of jolting the moderate Democrats.
     Critics of the bills claim the 50 percent fuel cuts are a pipe dream and would decimate industry, particularly agriculture and transportation. Opponents are also concerned about giving the California Air Resources Board, an unelected state agency, increased authority to enforce the stiff emissions and fuel cuts.
     California’s agricultural industry has joined the oil business in opposing the climate change bills. Fresh off record revenue of $56 billion in 2014, California farmers say the bills do not include specific measures or directions for achieving 50 percent fuel reductions and wrongfully target the agricultural industry, which already is battling the state’s devastating drought.
     Jason Fetters, who manages a small olive farm in rural Northern California, claims lawmakers are giving the Air Resources Board a “blank check” to develop blueprints for the fuel cuts.
     “(Farmers) haven’t been told how regulators will enforce or come up with ways to actually meet the goals; nobody knows,” Fetters said. “I don’t know a single person who understands these bills or sees the need for them.”
     Fetters agreed that improving the state’s notoriously polluted air should be a high priority, but said California contributes only about 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
     The Agricultural Council of California and dozens of other organizations, including the California Retailers Association and the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, sent de Leon a letter opposing SB 350. The letter said the 2030 deadline is too soon and the bill will pass oil and energy costs down to small business owners and consumers.
     Backers of the legislation claim many of the regulations are already in place under Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, and say complaints about the Air Resources Board’s ability to enforce the regulations is a non-starter.
     California is already the established leader of environmental reform and has a chance to cement its legacy, said Brian Nowicki, with the Center for Biological Diversity.
     “The bills are putting more concrete wording and phrases around the efforts and processes already in place,” Nowicki said.
     Nowicki said lawmakers should back Brown’s environmental efforts and prove to the world that drastic emissions cuts are possible.
     “This is something that the rest of the world and hopefully the rest of America can look to and see just how solid these processes are, how much support there is for them and how long they’re going to be around,” Nowicki said.
     The Democratic holdouts want protections from the Air Resources Board, and asked de Leon to include a clause forcing the board’s decisions to be approved by the Legislature. If the holdouts and de Leon do not come to a compromise this week, the bills will likely be pulled from an Assembly floor vote and tabled for the year.
     Spokesmen for California’s transportation industry, faced with increase regulation if the bills pass, said they are still trying to comply with strict emissions standards issued in 2008.
     Transportation companies have spent more than $7 billion retrofitting tractor-trailers to meet Air Resources Board regulations, said R.J. Cervantes, director of legislative affairs for the California Trucking Association.
     “There is no way the industry can meet a 2030 standards deadline,” Cervantes said.
     He said SB 350 would force drivers to redouble efforts to update engine technology and cripple smaller owner-operators and trucking companies.
     “All those investments, all the planning, all the decision making could be completely undermined if SB 350 doesn’t protect those previously made investments,” Cervantes said.
     While de Leon negotiates with the moderate Democrats this week at the Capitol he will do so in the face of fat campaign donations from the oil industry. Last year oil companies spent $13 million on California political campaigns, the most of any interest group.
     The Golden State is the third-largest crude oil producing state, behind Texas and North Dakota. Monthly revenue from crude oil has been on a downward slope since 2014, with the average price per barrel of crude dropping from $103 last September to $46 this week.
     U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and 26 other members of Congress urged California lawmakers to pass the environmental bills and “show the world there is reason to hope for meaningful action.”
     “We’re running out of time to address the climate crisis,” Pelosi said in a statement. “We need strong leadership at the state and local levels because deniers in Congress are still using snowballs to refute the overwhelming consensus of the global scientific community.”
     Pelosi, D-California, referred to a stunt by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, who tossed a snowball onto the Senate floor last winter, in an attempt to rebut global warning. “It’s very, very cold out, very unseasonable,” Inhofe said in February.

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