Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown, Senate Democrats find unlikely fight on climate bills

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, center, and Sen. Fran Pavley, right, have run into resistance in the state Assembly regarding SB 350 and SB 32.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, center, and Sen. Fran Pavley, right, have run into resistance in the state Assembly regarding SB 350 and SB 32. The Associated Press

Earlier this summer, it would have appeared unlikely that environmentalists and their Democratic allies would have so much trouble passing new rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California.

After Gov. Jerry Brown announced plans to curtail petroleum use in vehicles and to increase the proportion of electricity derived from renewable sources such as wind and solar, the Senate drafted a package of bills and passed them easily in June.

The legislation enjoyed public support, and it rolled along as the White House and other governments intensified their own efforts to reduce emissions – while praising California for its more ambitious strides.

But following a barrage of advertising from oil companies in recent weeks, the legislation has run into resistance in the state Assembly, where moderate Democrats hold more influence than in the Senate.

This week, about 20 Democrats in the lower house walked into Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins’ office to voice a range of concerns. They say the legislation isn’t specific enough about how it will affect motorists.

Now, with two weeks before the legislative session ends, senators are floating amendments to their proposals in an effort to mollify Assembly members, while turning up public pressure to pass the legislation. The uncertainty has bewildered activists who once expected a smooth ride in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

On Tuesday, following a news conference called by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León to promote the climate package, business representatives who stood beside him at the Capitol dispersed to lobby individual lawmakers in their offices.

“I was scratching my head,” said Rachelle Reyes Wenger, director of public policy and community advocacy for the hospital provider Dignity Health. “I didn’t even realize that there were all these questions with the Dems on this.”

I was scratching my head. I didn’t even realize that there were all these questions with the Dems on this.

Rachelle Reyes Wenger, director of public policy and community advocacy for Dignity Health

In their closely watched climate package, Senate leaders are seeking to dramatically expand upon Assembly Bill 32, the landmark 2006 law requiring California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Senate Bill 350, by de León, would require the state to increase to 50 percent from one-third the amount of energy derived from renewable sources, while reducing petroleum use in motor vehicles by 50 percent by 2030.

In radio and TV ads and mailers targeting moderate Democrats in the Assembly, the California Drivers Alliance, a group funded by the Western States Petroleum Association, has criticized the power of the California Air Resources Board and the legislation’s lack of detail about what measures the ARB will take to reduce petroleum use.

The ads have raised fears of gas rationing or surcharges based on motorists’ driving habits, neither of which are authorized by SB 350.

The ARB, which would maintain its existing – and often controversial – authority over vehicle emissions and fuel standards, estimates existing policies will reduce petroleum use in cars and trucks by more than 20 percent by 2030. Administration officials say expanding that effort to comply with SB 350 could include building high-speed rail, increasing fuel efficiency of cars and providing more incentives for alternative fuels.

But many lawmakers are leery of ceding authority to the administration to make those decisions.

“There’s absolutely no plan in front of us telling us how they’re going to reduce petroleum by 50 percent by 2030,” said Assemblyman Henry Perea, a Fresno Democrat who is among the leaders of the moderate Democrats. “So without knowing that, I think it’s important for the Legislature to retain authority.”

De León said this week that he is drafting amendments to his bill to address concerns about oversight of the ARB. Among other measures, he is expected to include language barring the ARB from taking measures such as gas rationing, while adding legislative appointees to the board.

Sen. Fran Pavley, the author of a companion bill that would increase California’s emission reduction target to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, is proposing similar amendments to her bill, Senate Bill 32, including requiring the ARB to submit a draft plan to the Legislature one year before adopting new, post-2020 regulations.

The bill’s supporters have said amendments are unnecessary. But Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said that if they “will help push back on some of the ridiculous comments that some of the oil industry is making, then fine. If it gives (Assembly members) comfort, fine.”

It is unclear whether the amendments will be enough for skeptical lawmakers. Pavley’s proposal would allow the Legislature to modify or reject the ARB’s plans before they take effect, but if the Legislature failed to act, the ARB could go forward without another vote.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said proposed amendments under discussion at the Capitol do not go far enough.

“We remain opposed to proposals to reduce petroleum transportation in California,” she said in one prepared statement this week. In another, she objected to “blank check authority” for the ARB.

Pavley said allowing the Legislature to hold votes on individual ARB policies as they arise would diminish the regulatory process, subjecting it to an “up-and-down vote heavily influenced by whatever the special interest group is that wants to oppose it.”

She said, “I don’t think that’s the way you do business.”

Oil interests donated at least $2 million to lawmakers from January 2013 through June.

California’s oil companies are a major force at the Capitol. Altogether, oil interests donated at least $2 million to lawmakers from January 2013 through June. Of that amount, about $1.5 million went to Assembly members.

The Western States Petroleum Association declined to say how much it is spending on its ads.

Proponents of the bill are countering aggressively. Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist, is sending mailers supporting SB 350 into Democratic districts. The state’s Democratic U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, urged Assembly members in a letter this week to pass the legislation. And Brown, who has made climate change a priority of his administration, is sharpening his rhetoric.

“The oil industry is in deep trouble,” he told reporters Monday. “They have a product that is highly destructive, while highly valuable at the same time. And we’re trying to work out the right policies.”

While the oil industry fights the legislation on one front, the state’s utilities are pressing for revisions to part of the bill that would require California to increase to 50 percent from one-third the proportion of electricity the state derives from renewable sources. One utility, Sempra Energy, the parent of San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Gas Co., said in a letter to de León last week that it will support the bill after the Senate leader agreed to a short list of modifications.

Perea, who participated in the meeting with Atkins this week, said his concern about the climate legislation is not a response to oil companies’ objections, but to regulations and costs he fears could burden his constituents.

“Let’s be clear: The oil companies want both of these bills to die,” Perea said.

But Perea said he and many other Democrats, though hesitant on the legislation, do not.

“I think there are a lot of members who want to say ‘yes’ to the climate package because we believe in the goal, and we believe that climate change is happening, and we think that the California Legislature can and should be the leader in the fight against global warming,” Perea said. “Having said that, we can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach in dealing with the issue.”

He added, “I’m very optimistic that we’re going to get there. It’s just going to take some time.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders. Jim Miller contributed to this report.

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