In a major setback for Gov. Jerry Brown’s climate agenda, the governor and legislative leaders on Wednesday abandoned an effort to require a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use in motor vehicles by 2030.
The announcement followed weeks of lobbying by oil companies and resistance not only from Republicans, but moderate Democrats in the Assembly.
For Brown, the failure represented a rare legislative defeat, and on Wednesday there were two: In addition to dropping the petroleum reduction mandate from Senate Bill 350, Brown’s proposal to raise billions of dollars for road repairs appeared to stall.
At a dreary news conference at the Capitol, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said she does not expect a vote on road funding before the legislative session concludes at the end of the week, though she said lawmakers will continue to discuss transportation funding later.
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Brown, who has made climate change a priority of his administration, said he will push forward on greenhouse gas emissions using his executive authority. The bill will preserve the California Air Resources Board’s existing power to make regulations that reduce emissions.
“We might get another bill next year, we might just keep doing it by regulation,” Brown said. “California is not going to miss a beat. Be very clear about that. We don’t have a declaration in statute, but we have absolutely the same authority. We’re going forward. The only thing different is my zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree.”
Brown and legislative leaders said other provisions of Senate Bill 350 will remain intact, including requiring the state to increase the proportion of electricity derived from renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Yet with Brown in his final term in office, de León said legislation requiring the petroleum reduction was significant “so we know for a fact that this is the law” no matter who is governor.
Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins acknowledged defeat on the petroleum side in a news conference at the Capitol. The announcement came after Brown and the two leaders huddled privately in the pro tem’s office Wednesday afternoon.
Brown said that oil companies, which launched an aggressive ad campaign against the bill that froze Democrats in the Assembly, “won a skirmish” but would not prevail in the long run.
Brown said the state will announce tougher rules next week for low carbon fuels.
“I’d say oil has won a skirmish, but they’ve lost the bigger battle, because I am more determined than ever to make our regulatory regime work for the people of California,” he said.
De León said lawmakers “could not cut through” a massive advertising campaign by oil companies in recent weeks.
Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said in a prepared statement that the announcement “was an acknowledgment that California’s energy future, economic competitiveness, and environment are inextricably linked.
“Californians are best served by inclusive energy policy and by a legislative body that retains authority on issues so critically important to jobs, communities and our way of life,” she said.
While acknowledging the oil industry’s victory, Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips said she took heart in the passion and commitment to pursue the issue evident on the part of legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown, who decried oil industry influence and at one point declared that “my zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree!”
The oil industry “won this battle, but I think what we heard from the governor is he’s willing to fight,” Phillips said. “I have never heard this kind of commitment from this level of decision-makers in California before to go after oil, to go after the causes of the worst pollution in the state.”
One Democrat specifically targeted by the industry’s campaign, Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, said the tactic did not influence him. He pointed instead to his concern about low-income Californians being unable to afford the policy.
“One of the implications probably would have been higher gas prices,” Cooper said, “and who does it impact the most? The middle class and low-income folks.”
Brown’s proposal to raise billions of dollars for road repairs in California never appeared to gain momentum. After failing to find Republican support for increasing taxes, the Brown administration floated a smaller, $600 million to $700 million proposal that it believed could be adopted with only a majority – not a two-thirds – vote.
But on Wednesday, Brown and Atkins acknowledged they were unlikely to reach a compromise before the regular legislative session concludes on Friday. Republicans have rejected a proposal from Brown that incorporates higher fuel taxes and a road user fee.
“It doesn’t look like it will” come together this week, Atkins said.
A special transportation session called by Brown allows lawmakers to work beyond the normal deadline. Atkins said she and de León would form a conference committee to continue working on the transportation issue “as we move into the fall.”
Brown suggested the setback was only temporary.
“The roads are going to get fixed,” Brown said. “People are going to spare the money, whether it takes a week, a month, a year or two.”