Earlier this month, when a legislative effort to reduce petroleum use in motor vehicles fell apart, Gov. Jerry Brown vowed to push ahead with greenhouse gas reduction policies on his own.
“We don’t have a declaration in statute, but we have absolutely the same authority,” Brown said. “We’re going forward. The only thing different is my zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree.”
The administration on Thursday staged a show of force. While the Democratic governor appeared in New York to promote climate change policies at a meeting of the United Nations, the California Air Resources Board convened in Sacramento to consider renewing the state’s low carbon fuel standard, a central part of California’s greenhouse gas reduction program.
The board is expected to approve the standard’s renewal Friday. It requires producers of gasoline and other transportation fuels to reduce the carbon intensity of their products by at least 10 percent by 2020, with a shifting focus to cleaner fuels.
Though the low carbon fuel standard predates Brown’s brawl with oil companies over petroleum, the outcome of Senate Bill 350 – which was stripped of the petroleum mandate – hung heavy over proceedings of the air board.
Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, told board members that as a result of lawmakers removing the petroleum reduction measure from the bill, “some people have the idea that California is no longer on a policy course to reduce the use of petroleum.”
The ARB, Magavern said, could “send a signal that California is indeed committed to reducing the use of petroleum in motor vehicles.”
Brown, speaking at a meeting on climate pollutants and sustainable development at the United Nations in New York, said the ARB next week will release plans to reduce short-lived climate pollutants, including methane and black carbon. The ARB is preparing regulations to reduce methane and hydrofluorocarbon emissions by 40 percent and black carbon by 50 percent by 2030.
“We’re going forward, and we’re doing it,” Brown said.
In a barrage of advertising this year, California’s oil industry lobbied against a provision of Senate Bill 350 that would have required the state to reduce petroleum use in motor vehicles by 50 percent by 2030. On Thursday, the Western States Petroleum Association opposed the low carbon fuel standard’s renewal, saying the regulations are unfair and that there are not enough low-carbon biofuels available for refiners to comply.
But Brown is now relying on existing law and his own administrative authority. And the oil industry has a far less sympathetic ear in Brown’s ARB than it had with moderate Democrats in the state Assembly.
“They are going to try to do as much as they can on the executive side,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable. “So we expect a full-court press ... to move these policies forward.”
The fuel standard was first adopted in 2009, but the 5th District Court of Appeal ruled in 2013 that the state violated provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act when it adopted the measure, requiring the state to undertake additional environmental reviews.
Richard Corey, executive officer of the Air Resources Board, said renewing the standard would, among other things, “re-establish a clear signal for investments in the cleanest fuels.”
The ARB is Brown’s chief vehicle for reducing carbon emissions, a priority of his administration. Since its formation in the 1960s, the board has set standards for tailpipe emissions and has issued regulations for everything from nail polish removers and glass cleaners to lawn mowers and weed trimmers.
The board’s power became the focus of debate this year over SB 350, and even lawmakers supportive of reducing petroleum use called for increased oversight of the ARB. In the wake of that debate, Lapsley said, “The whole discussion around (SB) 350, I think, has helped the Legislature understand what their role needs to be both in policy implementation and oversight moving forward.”
In addition to the low-carbon fuel standard, existing laws allow the ARB to pursue a variety of petroleum-reduction measures, including policies to increase the use of alternative fuels and mass transit.
“Under the regulations already in effect, if you just extend them out at the same rate through to 2030 ... you’d be within striking difference of the 50 percent,” said Daniel Sperling, an Air Resources Board member and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.
He estimated “striking distance” at perhaps 40 percent, a figure in line with a 2013 National Research Council report that found it could be possible to reduce petroleum use by 40 percent nationwide.
“In the short term it doesn’t affect anything, because all of the programs were already in place,” Sperling said of the abandonment of the petroleum reduction order in Senate Bill 350. “We were not going to be addressing post-2020 or post- 2025 for a little while anyway.”
In his remarks at the United Nations, Brown praised the “longevity and experience” of regulators at the ARB, as well as their technical expertise.
“In all these discussions of climate and initiatives and actions to deal with climate, there’s one big element that is absolutely crucial, and that is technical capacity to carry out good intentions,” Brown said. “And California’s air board has the engineers and the scientists in abundance.”
For its part, the oil industry demonstrated tremendous influence in the debate over petroleum this year. And like Brown, it can seek recourse outside of the Legislature, too.
“The air resources board has tremendous power … and so clearly there’s an opportunity for that board to introduce some regulations that could eventually have some of the goals Governor Brown has in mind,” said Michael Shires, an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University.
However, Shires said, “We do have the initiative in California, and especially in this case, there are some well organized interests who would be willing to fund campaigns ... The reality is that in California, if the governor pursues, I would say, too aggressively his agenda, you might see an initiative qualified that would kind of shine a spotlight on it.”