Cap-and-trade opponents hit California incumbents

A driver gasses up his car in Sacramento on Friday.
A driver gasses up his car in Sacramento on Friday. The Associated Press

It never came up for a vote this year, but the dispute over California’s carbon-pricing scheme continues to frame November elections, with a group launched by oil company money underwriting ads in select legislative races.

California’s cap-and-trade system will expand in January to encompass producers of transportation fuels like gasoline, compelling them to purchase permits for the carbon emissions they create. Prices at the pump will rise as a result, the oil industry has warned.

The possibility of a spike in fuel costs opened rifts between Democrats this year. Sixteen members of the Assembly Democratic Caucus signed on to a letter urging the state Air Resources Board to hold off. A bill seeking a delay never got a hearing and was repudiated by Democratic leaders, including Gov. Jerry Brown, who said the legislation would thwart California’s efforts to curb climate change.

That means the issue got neither a vote nor a hearing in the Legislature this session. But a group called the California Drivers Alliance, whose backers include the Western States Petroleum Association – an oil industry umbrella group – and an array of agricultural organizations, is funding mailers praising or condemning incumbent politicians on the issue.

The California Drivers Alliance received seed money from the Western States Petroleum Association and is playing in “about a dozen” legislative races, spokesman Jerry Azevedo said.

“The California Drivers Alliance has used a wide variety of communications channels in recent months to educate consumers, organizations and community leaders about this regulation,” the group said in a statement. “One component of our effort includes issue advocacy mailers to recognize where elected officials stand on this important issue.”

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, did sign a leadership-endorsed letter urging California to stay the course on requiring oil companies to purchase carbon permits. So the piece of mail featuring Dickinson faults him, scrawling a scarlet “Why?” across his face and urging Dickinson to “stop wavering and oppose the new hidden gas tax.”

But a mailer featuring Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, praises him – despite the fact that Cooley never signed on to the letter urging a delay. A quizzical email from Cooley’s opponent, Republican Doug Haaland, questioned the mailer in asking, “Just what did Assemblyman Cooley do to STOP the hidden gas tax?”

A spokesman for the California Drivers Alliance pointed to a letter from Cooley to Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols, dated months after Democrats sent their initial letter, asking Nichols to delay or modify the law “so that it does not unnecessarily increase fuels costs in order to generate revenue for the State.”

Cap-and-trade has also fueled attacks on Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats next month and a key to retaining a two-thirds majority. She did not sign either letter, and a television ad paid for by her opponent warns viewers that she “supports new regulations that will raise the price of a gallon of gas.”

A consultant for the campaign of Quirk-Silva’s opponent, Republican Young Kim, pointed to Quirk-Silva’s not signing the letter arguing for a delay and to her votes for other legislation governing the cap-and-trade program. Quirk-Silva’s campaign said she was never asked to sign the letter and supports deferring the inclusion of transportation fuels.

Neither Quirk-Silva nor Cooley served in the Legislature in 2006 when Assembly Bill 32 passed, launching California’s cap-and-trade program.

The California Drivers Alliance campaign is one front in an industry-funded assault on the cap-and-trade changes. A group called Fed Up at the Pump has been sounding alarms for months and has coordinated its spending with the California Drivers Alliance and other entities.

“There’s an effort to make sure we’re not duplicating expenditure efforts,” said Jay McKeeman, a vice president for government relations at the California Independent Oil Marketers Association, which organized Fed Up at the Pump.

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.