Fierce Fight Expected Against Texas Oil's Effort to Derail California Climate Law

Defenders Up Against Deep Pockets and Fearmongering Over Higher Energy prices

Within the next few days, the expectation here is that California's renewable energy and emissions reductions law, AB 32, is going to qualify for inclusion on the November ballot, with voters being asked to vote "yes" to suspend the law until unemployment improves or "no" to leave it in place.

The ballot initiative wants to suspend AB 32 until unemployment reaches 5.5% for 4 consecutive quarters - a level reached only twice in the state in the last 30 years. A "yes" vote would effectively kill the law. 

With most of the money supporting the ballot initiative coming from Texas oil companies, local advocates met last week to galvanize efforts to turn back the influence of out-of-state fossil energy interests and preserve the landmark measure. Everyone expects a tough fight.

Advocates reckon the Texas oil companies have two assets they will rely on: deep pockets to wage a relentless campaign and a simple message designed to frighten voters that AB 32 will bring higher energy prices.

Supporters of AB 32 seem to have the economic arguments on their side, with the law expected to boost green jobs and energy savings, according to many studies. The question is whether they'll be able to marshall the facts with sufficient skill and intensity to persuade voters to let the law stand.

Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel says that despite a recent California Economic Development report that links more than 500,000 green jobs in the state to policies like AB 32, the average constituent doesn't make the connection and believes that green jobs are somewhere out in the future.

Greuel explained to a group of AB 32 supporters that investments in the California clean technology sector in 2009 totaled $2.1 billion - 60% of the total in North America and 5 times that of any other state – but that average voters still don't understand the impact of AB 32 on the state in terms of attracting businesses.

"It's about giving specific examples to voters Greuel suggested. "...to identify jobs created and what a green job is."

Gary Gero of the Climate Action Reserve concurred. He says that California's green jobs increased 36% from 1995 – 2008, and that 21% of them are in the manufacturing sector.

"We need to start communicating that to people," he said.

Wade Crowfoot, West Coast Political Director for Environmental Defense Fund says that the opposition to AB 32 has been effective in convincing consumers that they are going to see higher costs if AB 32 is implemented.

"Those same interests have been reaping billions off consumers, so it's pretty disingenuous," Crowfoot said. He believes that without AB 32, consumers are going to see higher costs of fossil fuels. "Oil, coal, natural gas, they're all finite resources."

In addition, he says that AB 32 takes into accounts the high costs associated with pollution and healthcare that Californians are already paying.

Consumers Protected

Because the California Public Utilities Commission determines what energy costs can get passed on to consumers, Crowfoot believes that they will be well protected under AB 32, with money from cap and trade going into consumer rebates, refunds, and energy efficiency incentives. Crowfoot says it's a net benefit for consumers.

"Studies (on AB 32 impacts) say that by 2020, there will be a household savings of two to four thousand dollars as a result of increased efficiency," he explained.

Cara Horowitz from the UCLA Law School Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment told the group that one key to defeating the initiative is focusing on Southern California. "California is at risk from climate change," she said "and southern California is at great risk."

Those risks include 110 degree temperatures in the Central Valley, 70 – 90% loss of snowpack in the Sierras, water shortages, twice the number of drought years, 70 more extreme heat days a year, 80% more ozone days, 55% more forest fires and a 16 inch rise in sea levels.

Horowitz suggested that to defeat the initiative, it is important to focus on the strategic economic advantages to the state that AB 32 implementation provides. For example, 15% of the emissions reductions will come from a 25% increase in energy efficiency. She says that's money in consumer pockets.

Further, 12% of the reductions are expected to come from a 33% increase in renewable energy and 54% from cleaner cars, cleaner fuels, cleaner ports, increased public transportation and a decrease in refrigerants and other greenhouse gas pollutants. She says all of that gives the state an enduring economic advantage in clean technology investment as the first actor in the U.S.

Jonathan Parfrey of the Green LA Institute gave as an example the recent successful bid to bring the U.S. headquarters of Chinese electric vehicle company, BYD, to downtown Los Angeles and an assembly plant to Lancaster, California.

"We made our name in Southern California as the land of freeways and cars," he said, "but we are also the land of sunshine. We can make Los Angeles the land of electric vehicles but if AB 32 is defeated, what's the motivation?"

Supporters looked to minimize what is perhaps the most controversial part of the legislation, the statewide cap and trade mechanism, noting that it will be responsible for generating only 19% of the emissions reductions. It would also be pre-empted in the federal energy bill currently under consideration in Congress, though the federal bill specifically protects the rest of AB 32 from federal inteference.

Key Challenges

Leo Wallach of Winner and Mandalbach, the lead strategic consultant on the campaign to preserve AB 32 summarized the key challenges. First, the initiative is being presented as a suspension – hitting the pause button - rather than a rollback. He warned that a suspension is more palatable to voters, although a suspension would effectively kill the legislation.

Then there is the confusion that a "yes" vote on the ballot measure translates into a "no" vote on AB 32. Given low public awareness about AB 32, people may not know how they are voting.

And then there is the expectation of being up against a formidable war chest filled with money from Texas oil companies out to protect their interests in California. 

"It's beatable," he says, "but we have to take it extremely seriously."

Wallach is also pleased with the news coverage that the involvement of Texas oil companies in California has gotten, but he warned lsiteners that "establishing who is funding it is necessary," he says, "but not sufficient."

Supporters of AB 32 are looking to fight those Texas oil dollars with a broad coalition, grass roots organizing and social media outreach. Their online hub, StopDirtyEnergyProp.com, lists supporters that include public health organizations like American Lung Association in California and Blue Shield of California, AARP, California Teamsters, business leaders and organizations like eBay and Google, cities, and environmental organizations.

Missing right now is the level of national attention and funding that supporters hope will come in the next few months as the fight heats up.

GOP Attacks

Concurrently, supporters must protect AB 32 from attack on another front. Both GOP front runners for Governor of California, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, have registered their opposition to AB 32 implementation.

Whitman has vowed to suspend the law's implementation for a year as her first act in office. Poizner has gone further and is supporting the initiative to suspend. A number of members of the coalition are unable to respond because non-profit organizations with an IRS 501 (c) 3 status cannot spend funds on elections.

"There is no more important issue this year than to preserve AB 32," Greuel said. Wendy James of Better World Group agrees. She says that if the polluters win, they will go after something else important in terms of regulation and that the affects will be felt internationally.

Gary Gero put it this way. "This is more than just a piece of legislation," he said. "This is our generational Waterloo." Later he added. "If you look at the equivalent in 1970 or 1972, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Protection Act. If those had been rolled back, where would we be today?"

The Democrats are waiting for California Attorney General Jerry Brown to enter the Governor's race, and he's used his authority to help the advocates of AB 32. Though backers of the ballot measure are calling it the California Jobs Initiative, he has used his office to give it a title that specifies what it would really do:

"Suspends Air Pollution Control Laws Requiring Major Polluters To Report And Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions That Cause Global Warming Until Unemployment Drops Below Specified Level For Full Year."

In the voting booth, when all the action is done, that's an advantage defenders of the law are glad they're going to have.

(Photo: Daniel R. Blume via Wikimedia Commons)

See Also

California's Landmark Greenhouse Gas Law Comes Under Attack 

Oil & Industry: Connecting the Dots in the War Over California's Greenhouse Gas Law 

Study: Minority Communities Suffer Most If California Suspends AB 32

Venture Capitalists: Move to Repeal California Climate Law Endangers a Job Creator

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