Eyes will be on California voters on November climate bill vote.

For those who want legislative action on climate change, the past year delivered a one-two punch against progress. First there was Copenhagen, full of promise but deflated by economic worries and the familiar rift between developed and developing countries. Then, this past summer, the U.S. Senate abandoned work on a comprehensive energy bill and its cap-and-trade climate provisions.

But, another battle looms. In California, the state’s hallmark climate legislation, The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, faces suspension by a ballot measure backed almost entirely by the fossil fuel industry — primarily Texas oil companies Valero and Tesoro.

Proposition 23, dubbed by its authors the “California Jobs Initiative,” would suspend the state’s climate law until unemployment in the state falls to 5.5 percent or less for four consecutive quarters. It now stands at more than 12 percent, among the highest in the country.

California’s climate law, also known by the state Assembly bill that proposed it, AB-32, requires that statewide greenhouse gas emissions be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020. If that goal is met, emissions in 2020 would be about 30 percent less than they would be without the law. The legislation — the most ambitious in the nation — directs the state’s Air Resources Board to adopt regulations that would drive the state toward the 2020 goal.

Impact Possible Across State, Nation

If Prop. 23 passes, it would stall the centerpiece of the climate law: a cap-and-trade program designed to cut emissions. But many say other laws and regulations aimed at lowering CO2 emissions could be in jeopardy, too. The concern stems directly from the ballot measure’s broad language.

If AB-32 is suspended, the measure states, “no state agency shall propose, promulgate, or adopt any regulation implementing (the law) … and any regulation adopted prior to the effective date of this measure shall be void and unenforceable until such time as the suspension is lifted.”

“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty, and no one really knows how broadly Prop. 23 would be read or interpreted,” Louise Bedsworth, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, said in a recent telephone interview.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story that suggested that many California laws and regulations already in place to reduce greenhouse gases would probably not be affected by Prop. 23.

A report by the state’s Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) also suggested as much. A 2002 law, for example, required the Air Resources Board to adopt regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and smaller trucks. California has other laws on the books authorizing energy efficiency programs.

But Bedsworth, who told the LA Times for its story that “some of the biggest programs … would go on,” said there is debate on whether Prop. 23’s effects would be so limited.

“Other people feel that that is not the case, that if Prop. 23 passes all of these programs — whether they were implemented solely under the authority of AB-32 or have their own sort of statutory authority — would all come to a halt,” Bedsworth said.

“The question is really ‘Was it something that was done … to support the goal for climate change in AB-32? And if so … the authority of Prop. 23 would be used to halt all of those programs.”

Push ‘Hold Button’ Until State Economy Improves?

Anita Mangels, a spokeswoman for the Yes on 23 campaign, minimizes the effect that Prop. 23 would have on California’s overall efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

“What is wrong with pushing the hold button until the economy gets back in shape?” Mangels told the LA Times in its August 9 story. “No one is saying we shouldn’t have these regulations. They are just saying now is not the time.”

Mangels’ campaign has cited an LAO report that estimated a net loss in jobs for the near term if AB-32 is implemented, with longer-term effects unknown.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sees the climate law as a major part of his legacy, has disputed that estimate.

Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for the No on 23 campaign, warned in a recent telephone interview that Prop. 23 would unravel years of progressive work.

“If you look very carefully at the language, it’s sweeping,” Maviglio said. “No state agency will be able to implement any state regulations involving greenhouse gases, so that extends not only to the Air Resources Board but also to the (California) Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission — both of which have aggressive programs to reduce greenhouse gases.”

The potential for gutting the state’s efforts to lower CO2 is very real, Maviglio said. New legislation is being thwarted too. Maviglio cited the recent failure of a bill in the state legislature, SB 722 by Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), that would have required energy companies to get more of their electricity through renewable resources.

An Important Fight, with Sweeping Implications

Why is the fight over Prop. 23 so important? Because what happens in California, the most populous state in the nation and the 8th largest economy in the world, resonates across the nation, experts say.

California is home to 37 million people — about 12 percent of the nation’s total population. Its gross state product was $1.85 trillion in 2008, 13 percent of the U.S. GDP for that year.

Furthermore, California produces about 1.4 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and 6.2 percent of the U.S. total.

A setback for the state’s efforts to regulate emissions would send a big message to Washington, Maviglio said, and also to the international community.

“I certainly think proponents believe that they want this to be strike three, after Copenhagen and the failure on Capitol Hill,” Maviglio said. “They’d love for California to vote this down.

“California, for better or worse, is perceived as being the most progressive, the most liberal, the most environmentally-conscious state in the union, and they would love to make this a bellwether — to say if it can’t pass in California that would be the death knell for clean energy legislation and climate legislation nationally.”

At the same time, if California voters defeat Prop. 23, that message would also be significant, Maviglio said. “It certainly will encourage other states to move forward until you get to a point where the industries that are being regulated will actually ask Washington to regulate instead of having to deal with 30 or so state laws,” he said.

Opponents of Prop. 23 say suspending AB-32 would harm the state’s fledgling but rapidly growing green technology economy. The California Employment Development Department has estimated that more than 475,000 employees work in clean technology or green jobs in California. Next 10, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that supports the expansion of green tech jobs, estimated in a recent report that California’s green businesses increased in number by 45 percent between 1995 and 2008, while total jobs in the state grew only 13 percent.

Who’s Backing, Who’s Fighting Prop. 23

Meanwhile, the fight in California over Prop. 23 is heating up. According to Cal-Access, which tracks campaign spending in California, proponents of Prop. 23 had raised more than $8.2 million as of September 10. Opponents had raised about $6.2 million.

So far, the Yes on 23 campaign is predominately bankrolled by Valero Energy Corp., which as of Sept. 10 had contributed a little more than $4 million, and Tesoro Corp., which had contributed $1.5 million.

But there are several other notable backers of the “Yes” campaign. Among them:

  • $1 million from Flint Hills Resources, based in Wichita, Kansas, and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, Inc. The corporation is described by SourceWatch as the largest privately held company in the U.S. and a corporation that built its wealth in oil trading and refining. The Koch brothers, Charles and David, were the subject of a scathing article on Aug. 30 in The New Yorker that discussed their libertarian leanings, funding of climate change denialists, connections to the Tea Party movement and dismal record as major polluters through their vast fossil fuel holdings. Koch Industries has fired back with an aggressive media campaign.
  • $498,000 from The Adam Smith Foundation, which describes itself as “an advocacy organization committed to promoting conservative principles and individual liberties in Missouri.”
  • $100,000 from The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.
  • $300,000 from Occidental Petroleum Corp., which describes itself as “the No. 1 natural gas producer and second-largest oil producer in California.”
    The company recently announced a significant discovery of oil and gas reserves in Kern County, California, “believed to be the largest oil and gas discovery in the state in more than 35 years.”
  • $100 from William Happer, a Princeton University physicist and well-known climate skeptic who has testified in Congress expressing doubts about the scientific consensus established for numerous aspects of climate science.

Contributions against the Prop. 23 campaign include:

  • $2.5 million from San Francisco billionaire Thomas Steyer, a top Democratic donor and financier who backed Barack Obama and John Kerry for President. Steyer, who has pledged $5 million to fight Prop. 23, has teamed up with former Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz to campaign against Prop. 23 (see here and here). Schultz has characterized Prop. 23 as a threat to national security because it would perpetuate the nation’s reliance on imported oil (see here and here). Schultz is co-chair of Republican Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor, which has placed him in somewhat of an awkward position. Whitman’s campaign has called AB-32 a “jobs killer,” although Whitman has more recently said she will vote against Prop. 23 “in all likelihood.”
  • $1 million-plus from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
  • $500,000 from Silicon Valley venture capitalist L. John Doerr, who has advocated for innovation in alternative energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • $500,000 from the Green Tech Action Fund, an advocacy group promoting the state’s growing green technology industry.

California Voters’ Views Unclear

Which campaign will ultimately win in November is far from clear.

In June, Stanford University political scientist Jon A. Krosnick conducted a poll that found that a large majority of Americans want the government to adopt regulations to fight continued warming. He discussed his poll in a New York Times Op-Ed on June 8.

The Pew Research Center for the People & The Press released a national survey conducted July 29-August 1 that found that 65 percent of respondents want limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, while 78 percent want requirements that utilities produce more energy from wind, solar and other renewable sources.

In California, however, things are not so clear-cut. In its bi-annual poll of Californians on environmental issues conducted in July, the Public Policy Institute of California found some conflicting views.

Two-thirds (67 percent) said they favor AB-32. But when asked if the government should take action to reduce emissions right away or wait until the state economy and job situation improves, only a slim majority (53 percent) said they prefer to act now. Forty-two percent said the state should wait.

Interestingly, only 23 percent of likely voters think taking action on climate change would result in fewer jobs. Forty-five percent think more jobs would be the result. (Twenty-five percent think it will have no effect.)

“I think what this survey suggests is that Californians don’t necessarily think that it’s a mutually exclusive choice — that it’s either jobs or doing things to reduce global warming,” PPIC research associate Sonja Petek said in a recent telephone interview.

Nevertheless, when it comes specifically to AB-32, party divisions are strong in California. While an overall majority (67 percent) supports the legislation, 80 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Independents are in favor of the law. But only 39 percent of Republicans share that view.

The PPIC poll didn’t ask questions specifically about Prop. 23, Petek said, because the ballot measure wasn’t yet finalized when the poll was conducted.

As the calendar gets closer to November 2, watch out for more forecasts of how Californians might vote on Prop. 23 and the Golden State’s move toward a low-carbon future.

The eyes of much of the nation, and for that matter of the international energy and environment community, will be watching closely.

A few more links to coverage of Prop. 23:

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...