Capitol Alert

What’s at stake in California’s climate bill?

Darren Johnson, operations manager of Northern California at Propel Fuels, polishes pumps that dispense fuel refined from recycled fats and oils.
Darren Johnson, operations manager of Northern California at Propel Fuels, polishes pumps that dispense fuel refined from recycled fats and oils.

By the end of the week, California lawmakers will decide the fate of a sweeping measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the subject of intense lobbying on both sides and a priority of Gov. Jerry Brown.

The most controversial part of the bill is a provision requiring the state to reduce petroleum use in motor vehicles by 50 percent by 2030. And depending on your point of view, the stakes are these: On one side, the pope (see Courage Campaign ad here); on the other, enslavement to a Tesla-loving, freedom-hating California Air Resources Board.

In a barrage of advertising, oil companies have focused criticism on the broad authority that Senate Bill 350 would give the ARB to implement petroleum reductions. The legislation does not detail what the ARB will do. But to hear the oil companies tell it, the most likely scenario is that the ARB will siphon gas from your tank while making you and your five kids – at least one of whom is in diapers – push your minivan home.

Let’s pause for a reality check.

First, the oil companies are right that the ARB wields significant power. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León is floating amendments to his bill to provide additional legislative oversight. But regulations will be the ARB’s to write, and it is not, as Brown would say, a pusillanimous bunch. This is an agency that has studied the carbon footprint of everything from toilet paper to the combustion engine. It’s done big things, such as order owners of heavy-duty diesel trucks to install soot traps on their exhaust pipes or take them off the road, and smaller things, such as proposing – then putting off – a “cool cars” rule requiring reflective windshields to help reduce temperatures inside cars.

So how might the ARB go about reducing petroleum use by 50 percent?

Keep in mind that a 50 percent reduction in the use of petroleum is not the same as a 50 percent reduction in fuel. Cars are getting more efficient all the time, and some don’t use petroleum at all. Lots of people other than Democratic politicians and environmentalists see a future with declining petroleum demand.

Though gasoline sales in California ticked up slightly last year over 2013, consumption has generally fallen over the past decade, from 15.8 billion gallons in 2006 to 14.6 billion gallons last year.

The oil company BP projects energy consumption for transportation falling by 13 percent by 2035, with oil’s share of the market falling to 84 percent from 95 percent today.

Still, reducing petroleum use by 50 percent is an unusually ambitious goal. In a one page fact sheet, the ARB offers a “sample path” to a 50 percent reduction. It involves reducing the growth in total vehicle miles traveled to 4 percent, increasing fuel efficiency of cars to 35 miles per gallon and at least doubling the use of alternative fuels such as biofuels and electricity.

The ARB has extensive experience on the fuel efficiency side of the equation. But it’s going to be far more difficult for the ARB to reduce how much people drive, especially as the population grows. According to the ARB, limiting the total increase in vehicle miles traveled to just 4 percent will require a per person reduction of 1.5 miles per day, to just under 23 miles.

Local land use decisions play a major role in how much people drive, and the ARB’s projections are more optimistic than what local agencies believe they will achieve.

In a 2013 report, the National Research Council found that, nationwide, vehicle miles traveled in cars and light duty trucks increased by 160 percent from 1970 through 2005. During that same time, however, improvements in fuel efficiency limited petroleum demand to only a 74 percent increase.

The NRC concluded that, across the United States, it would be “very difficult” to reduce petroleum use by 50 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, but that it might be possible to achieve a 40 percent reduction.

Of course, California is ahead of the rest of the country on greenhouse gas reduction programs. And in the current legislation, Brown is trying to expand its reach by integrating the state’s Independent System Operator, which manages California’s electricity transmission, with other states.

In recent days, SB 350 was amended to include a statement of intent to enact legislation “to provide for the evolution of the Independent System Operator into a regional organization.”

The language refers to an ongoing study by the California Independent System Operator of entering a joint venture with PacifiCorp, a Portland, Ore.-based utility that supplies electricity to customers in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, offered a similar amendment to a separate bill. It would “authorize the Independent System Operator to enter into a multistate entity or regional organization if that entry is approved by its governing board at a duly noticed public meeting.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders