Editorials

How long will this blue state let oil remain king?

Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond.
Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond. Associated Press file

Last week, in this blue state where the environmentalist movement took root, in the midst of a climate crisis, the oil industry managed again to bend the California Legislature to its will.

The gutting of Senate Bill 350 is sobering, for Californians and the nation. Between the aggravated drought and rising sea level, this state is on the front lines of global warming, and because of California’s political footprint, other parts of the country look to us to lead.

The stakes were clear, and there were plenty of opportunities to craft a compromise that would have moved the needle on this crucial issue. Instead, the oil industry got members of Gov. Jerry Brown’s own party to force movement on the biggest culprit in climate change out of the bill.

Lacking votes in the Assembly, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León last week stripped the measure of provisions that would have forced a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by 2030. It is beyond understatement to call this a missed opportunity.

We hope Brown is as angry as he now seems. We are disgusted by the influence of oil money on the Capitol.

After conceding defeat, Brown predicted the loss would galvanize people in the fight against carbon. That was spin. Give oil its due. In the Capitol and in the campaign for public support, the oil industry and its lobbyists and consultants outmaneuvered and outmuscled the governor, Democratic leaders and environmentalists.

The issue goes beyond the bruised image of any politician, however. As much as society depends on petroleum, we must wean ourselves from it. De León, Brown and Speaker-designate Anthony Rendon should not let the issue languish, and should assert their leadership by reintroducing similarly tough legislation. We hope Brown is as angry as he seems. We are disgusted by the influence of oil money on the Capitol.

The governor began his second term earlier this year with an inaugural address in which he declared that California would reduce petroleum use by 50 percent by 2030, and get half its electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources. Later, he issued an executive order mandating that by 2030, the state would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels.

But speeches are mere words, and future governors, seeking to make their own marks, won’t be bound by Brown’s executive orders. Statutes have permanence. De León introduced SB 350 to transform Brown’s vision into code. Agree with him or not, de León took a stand on an important issue of the day. That’s what we should expect of leaders. Others fell short.

Brown prides himself on being able to deliver votes on issues dear to him, and talks about the existential threat posed by climate change. In this instance, he traveled to the Vatican to talk about climate, but failed to focus on the basics of winning votes in his own Capitol until it was too late.

Outgoing Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins of San Diego, where the ocean breeze cleanses the air, let her house off easy by failing to put SB 350 to a vote. That indecision gave the bill’s opponents the cover of not having to cast votes that would have defined them as siding with the oil industry.

The asthma rate in Perea’s district is 38 percent higher than the state average. As he worked to maintain the status quo on global warming, a gargantuan wildfire in Fresno County threatened a grove of Giant Sequoias and consumed a swath of the Sierra Nevada larger than Philadelphia.

Twenty or more Assembly Democrats bill themselves as moderates, though the definition in this case has less to do with wavering on social issues and more to do with owing one’s elections to campaign spending by big business interests.

Canoodling with the oilies, Assemblyman Henry Perea, the Fresno Democrat who leads the moderate caucus, showed himself to be perhaps the most influential member of the 80-member lower house by insisting on weakening the agency responsible for reducing greenhouse gas, the California Air Resources Board. De León rightly rejected that. Perea kept the mods unified, and allied with 28 Republican Assembly members, who also opposed the legislation.

Several Central Valley Democrats backed Perea’s play, including Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove and Adam Gray of Merced. Many mods parroted oil industry lines that reducing petroleum use would raise prices and harm poor people, and glossed over evidence that poor people live in areas with the worst air.

Perea’s district has a 13.1 percent asthma rate, 38 percent higher than the state average. As he worked to maintain the status quo on global warming, a gargantuan wildfire in Fresno County threatened a grove of giant sequoias and consumed a swath of the Sierra Nevada larger than Philadelphia.

So long as we all rely on petroleum – and we no doubt will for some years – this state and nation should develop domestic supplies in a safe manner that does as little environmental damage as possible. But we must shift away from fossil fuel.

More than any other, this state’s leaders are taking steps to speed the transition to alternative fuel. That will continue, as it should. Brown made clear that the Air Resources Board should proceed with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including implementing a standard to lower the carbon content of gasoline. Because of other state actions, electric utilities could emerge as a significant winner by providing the juice necessary for charging stations for electric vehicles.

That all is for later, though. For now, there is this reality: Even though global warming will consume us if we don’t overcome our carbon dependence, in the 2015 legislative session, oil remained king.

  Comments