Jerry Brown offers big plan to cut gasoline use, details to come later

Gov. Jerry Brown is sworn in to office Monday as first lady Anne Gust Brown holds her family Bible.
Gov. Jerry Brown is sworn in to office Monday as first lady Anne Gust Brown holds her family Bible. hamezcua@sacbee.com

In an inaugural speech seemingly calibrated for a national audience, Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday set forth a lofty goal: reduce California petroleum use by 50 percent by 2030, a mere 15 years from now.

Brown left unanswered how to achieve the ambitious goal in a state where the car culture still dominates.

Vagaries notwithstanding, the juxtaposition was striking. Brown, portraying himself as the leader of a green nation-state that others could emulated, called for a reduction in gasoline use while incoming U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell prepares to put the Keystone XL pipeline to a vote.

The governor promises a pragmatic approach to his proposal, which is good. Climate change is real, and we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But there are broad implications to Brown’s notion.

Oil companies are huge taxpayers. Refineries employ union workers. Gas taxes pay for highway maintenance. Somewhat ironically, Brown used his speech to ask legislators to come up with ways to fund what he said was a $59 billion backlog on road and bridge maintenance.

His focus was less on the nuts and bolts of governance during the next four years, and more on the environment, a theme to which he has returned throughout his decades on the public stage. California should get half its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, he said, up from the current goal of getting a third of its electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2020.

As supporters and past and present elected officials filled the Assembly chambers and balcony, he called for a doubling of the energy efficiency of existing buildings, though he didn’t offer details about how to pay for it, or whether the proposal includes residences, and rental housing.

Experts believe gasoline consumption could fall by 20 percent by 2030 under existing law and policies. But further weaning a society that has relied on internal combustion and petroleum for a century will be no small task.

Higher mileage vehicles, electric vehicles, improved battery technology and other types of fuel all could be part of the solution, as could high-speed rail. The state is only now breaking ground on the project Tuesday, six years after voters approved it.

Brown didn’t mention income inequality in his speech. But wealth disparity is relevant to any discussion about energy.

Our guess is that in 2030, lower-income people and workers whose offices are their pick-up trucks still will be driving heavy gas users. Does the governor propose to help them pay for more fuel-efficient vehicles, and, if so, how much might that cost?

Monday’s speech was long for Brown, 23 minutes, but short for most politicians. Steeped as he is in this state’s history, Brown knows that no one ever will give a fourth inaugural in California.

He could be forgiven touches of nostalgia. He pointed to the spot in the Assembly chambers where he sat to watch his father’s inaugural in 1959, and he introduced family members who are descendants of his great grandfather, California pioneer August Schuckman.

Brown borrowed a line from his 1979 inaugural speech, when he was very much a presidential contender: “California will build for the future, not steal from it. And as we do, we will know in our hearts patriotism is not just defending the country of our fathers, but preparing the land for our children.”

He added a twist 35 years later: “The challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have shown and our descendants would expect.”

Barring extraordinary political events, Brown won’t move beyond California. But he is intent on securing his place in history. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, for a politician who hopes to leave a mark that far beyond California’s borders, details will be important.