California Setbacks Show Limits of U.S. Environmental Movement

MILKEN CONFERENCE

Jerry Brown, governor of California, speaks during the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Wednesday, April 29, 2015.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg
  • Lawmakers abandon 50% fuel reduction and greenhouse-gas caps
  • Business groups fought mandates with direct appeals to drivers

Even in California, there are limits to the power of the environmental movement.

That clout was tested and diminished this week in two bills championed by environmentalists and their allies, including Governor Jerry Brown and the Democratic leaders of the state Legislature.

One would have cut fuel use in half by 2030. The other would have rolled back greenhouse-gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. A vigorous campaign by businesses and oil interests forced lawmakers to retreat on both measures in the waning days of the legislative session, which ends Friday.

“The environmentalists ran into the reality of California’s economy,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, which includes the leaders of corporations such as Chevron Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co.“We have a two-tiered economy: coastal districts that are doing well with elected representatives who are championing these environmental laws, running headlong into inland districts with economies that aren’t doing nearly as well.”

California, home to some of the toughest greenhouse-gas pollution restrictions in the U.s. and the largest number of hybrid and electric cars, is seen as a bellwether for initiatives in reducing carbon emissions. Before business groups poured millions of dollars into a campaign to defeat or water down both bills, the measures were cruising through the Legislature, both houses of which are controlled by Democrats.

The central piece of legislation, which would have mandated a 50 percent reduction in gasoline consumption by 2030, along with a doubling of energy efficiency in buildings and a requirement that 50 percent of electric power come from renewable sources, passed the state Senate in June and three Assembly committees after that.

Then oil companies and other businesses singled out moderate Democrats from rural and suburban districts, and opposition to the gasoline mandate mounted. One flier they mailed depicted a family pushing a minivan down the road with the tag-line: “At least your family can get halfway home.”

On Sept. 9, acknowledging they didn’t have the votes, Brown and the heads of the Senate and Assembly said they were stripping out the fuel measure and moving forward with the less controversial parts of the bill.

Jack Pitney, who teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles, attributed the retreat to one word: drivers. “California is a liberal state but it’s also a state heavily dependent on automobiles,” he said. “Anything that imposes additional costs on drivers is very unpopular.”

Brown, Senate President Kevin De Leon and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins said they were unbowed and would continue efforts to reduce fossil-fuel use, either through new legislation or executive actions. In April, Brown issued an order to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, which he called the most aggressive benchmark enacted by any government in North America.

A companion bill, which would have carved Brown’s 40 percent goal into state law and required an 80 percent reduction in climate pollutants from 1990 levels by 2050, also suffered a setback as the legislative session ended. Senator Fran Pavley, a Democrat from suburban Los Angeles, shelved the bill and said she plans to reintroduce the measure next year.

Pavley’s bill also had a path to victory before this month. It passed the Senate in June and two Assembly committees. Then, as support eroded, Pavley said the measure wouldn’t come up for approval by the Assembly before the body adjourns Friday.

“Unfortunately, the state Assembly and the administration were not supportive, for now, and we could not pass this important proposal,” she said in a statement.

Pavley and Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge-fund founder who championed both bills, didn’t respond to calls and e-mails Thursday for comment on whether the setbacks represent a defeat for California’s environmental movement.

Lapsley said they don’t.

“California is so far in front of every other state, nation and jurisdiction that I don’t know who we’d relinquish that to,” he said.

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