Capitol Alert

California cap and trade could go to ballot

Kevin de León says he won't settle on climate change 'just to get it done'

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, on Aug. 3, 2016, describes talks on legislation to extend the state's emission targets beyond 2020.
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Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, on Aug. 3, 2016, describes talks on legislation to extend the state's emission targets beyond 2020.

The fight to extend California’s climate change program could mean putting the issue before voters, a top aide to Gov. Jerry Brown said on Thursday as the governor launched a new ballot measure committee.

In publicly proclaiming the possibility of shifting from the Legislature to the ballot box, the Brown administration underscored its commitment to fortifying its climate change efforts, which the governor has placed at the center of his fourth and final term, despite resistance from some legislators.

As the legislative session accelerates into its final stretch, the fate of California’s cap-and-trade system has dominated talk at the Capitol. Established under the auspices of a 2006 bill, the system requires businesses to buy permits for the climate-altering emissions they put into the air.

But that authority could expire soon, since it is linked to a goal of reducing emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020. In a sign of uncertainty about the program’s future, the most recent auction generated far less revenue than projections, pulling in around $10 million where previous auctions had reaped hundreds of millions.

A bill before the Legislature would set a new 2030 target, shoring up cap and trade’s legal authority. But that legislation is in a tenuous position. It would need to clear the Assembly, where an earlier version of the bill died last year shortly after Republicans and moderate Democrats succeeded in diluting another Brown-championed climate bill.

Those obstacles aside, Brown aide Nancy McFadden said Thursday that the administration remains determined to bolster California’s climate programs. In a statement, McFadden rejected “the fallacy that a vote on any single measure in the next 27 days will make or break our climate agenda.”

“We are going to extend our climate goals and cap and trade one way or another,” McFadden said. “The governor will continue working with the Legislature to get this done this year, next year or on the ballot in 2018.”

McFadden’s statement accompanied the appearance of a new ballot measure committee affiliated with Brown: Californians for a Clean Environment.

Voters broadly support policies to curb the effects of climate change, a recent Public Policy Institute of California found. The poll found a majority of likely voters back further-reaching emissions targets and a plurality favors cap and trade. Most respondents said they would be willing to pay more for electricity and gas if it helps fight climate change.

Oil companies have fought efforts to broaden California’s climate programs, rallying centrist Democrats last year to help bury a mandate to halve the state’s petroleum use. The Brown administration has been negotiating this year with the industry representatives like the Western States Petroleum Association, which declined comment on Thursday.

Going through voters, rather than the Legislature, could dispel some of the legal fog encircling cap and trade. An ongoing challenge charges that the program should have been passed with a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority. Getting voter approval would remove the need to secure the program with a two-thirds vote, a high hurdle given the difficulty of putting together a simple majority.

Should the legislative effort resume next year, Democratic leadership could find themselves in a stronger position. In the Assembly, Democrats could expand their already-substantial margin by multiple seats.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, has projected little urgency about making a deal this year, sources say. On Thursday he released a statement saying “we are committed to extending California’s emission targets beyond 2020, and we will keep working on this until it’s right.”

Earlier this week Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said he was “not going to negotiate a bad deal just to get it done.”

“One way or the other, we’re going to get it done,” he said.

With legislative prospects uncertain, the California Air Resources Board has also initiated an effort to establish new emissions goals. Shortly after McFadden’s statement, ARB Chair Mary Nichols posted a message to Twitter saying it was “certain” California’s climate efforts would continue through 2030.

“Low carbon fuels, (zero-emission vehicles), renewable electricity, cap and trade are all in CA’s future,” Nichols wrote.

Gov. Jerry Brown and former Vice President Al Gore discuss California's climate progress after the signing of the Paris climate change accord at the United Nations in New York on April 22, 2016. "All the people I ran against in 1974 are now dead,"

Gov. Jerry Brown, issuing an ominous appeal on climate change, spoke at a climate change conference in Vatican City on July 21, 2015, saying the world may already have “gone over the edge” on global warming and that humanity must reverse course o

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert