After a long road, a change in the air

Electric cars are parked atop the Los Angeles Police Department parking lot. Emissions goals passed last week by state lawmakers would be impossible to meet without massive cuts in petroleum use.
Electric cars are parked atop the Los Angeles Police Department parking lot. Emissions goals passed last week by state lawmakers would be impossible to meet without massive cuts in petroleum use. The Associated Press

For decades, California legislators and policymakers have been grappling with our collective energy consumption and its fallout, to the consternation of major corporations that produce and depend upon fossil fuel.

More often than not, the industry has blocked the requirements, as happened last year when oil interests defeated the provision in a bill that sought to reduce petroleum use by 50 percent by 2030. It won by waging a $10 million-plus advertising campaign that derided people who “can afford a Tesla,” and swaying moderates in the Legislature.

This year, legislative tactics shifted. There was no direct challenge to the oil industry. With Gov. Jerry Brown’s backing and calls from the White House, Democrats pushed through Senate Bill 32, a one-page bill that includes about 375 deceptively simple words. But Brown and the Democrats who control the Legislature may end up forcing significant petroleum reductions, for the good of the environment.

The bill doesn’t include the word “petroleum.” Nor does it propose to curtail gasoline, or make any mention of the need to increase the use of zero-emission vehicles such as the Tesla.

Rather, SB 32 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, says California shall reduce greenhouse gas emissions by least 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, a mere 13 years from when the legislation would take effect. If that it happens, it would be momentous.

The notion of reducing a gas no one can see by 40 percent is, by its nature, abstract. But in the years to come, every Californian could feel the impact of SB 32. The California Air Resources Board estimates 35 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from trucks, buses and cars, with a fourth of the total coming from what most of us drive.

In other words, there is no way to reach the goal established in SB 32 without vastly reducing petroleum use.

The bill doesn’t spell out how California will achieve its goal. That will be left to the Air Resources Board and legislation in 2017 and beyond. Although there’s no penalty for failing to meet the goal, statutes are not easily ignored.

As lawmakers worked to pass SB 32 and a companion, AB 197 by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Southern California Democrat, Tesla offered a bill that would have put into statute Brown’s current goal of having 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025.

Facing opposition from other automakers and from the oil industry, and tight legislative deadlines, the Palo Alto-based electric car maker dropped the bill. But like the 50 percent reduction in petroleum use, the specific mandate for 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles may no longer be necessary.

California cannot attain a 40 percent reduction by 2030 in greenhouse gas emissions without reliance on zero-emission vehicles. Today, electric vehicles of the sort Tesla makes would seem to be the most likely alternative, though Toyota is betting on hydrogen-powered vehicles. And no doubt there will be technology few can imagine by 2030.

We hesitate to declare SB 32 a turning point. In the immediacy of a legislative moment, it’s never clear what impact a single measure will have years in the future. But in decades to come, if this law is looked upon as pivotal, it will have come at the end of a long road.

Four decades ago, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and the Legislature declared there was “a pressing need to accelerate research and development into alternative sources of energy” when they created the California Energy Commission.

Three decades ago, Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican and not a tree hugger, appointed Jan Sharpless as chairwoman of the Air Resources Board.

More than two and a half decades ago, in 1990, the board adopted the first mandate requiring that 2 percent of all cars sold in California be electric-powered or emissions-free.

Then as now, the requirement gored the most entrenched and well-heeled interests: automakers that produce internal combustion engines and the oil companies that produce the fuel for those engines. Sharpless resigned in 1993, having butted heads for years with the oil industry, automakers and truckers, and the old zero-emission vehicle mandate was eviscerated, only to be restored, first by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and now by Brown.

It’s hard to imagine that a future governor would reverse course. It’s also hard to imagine California without its historic dependence on fossil fuels.

This fight probably isn’t yet finished; as policymakers and voters have seen many times in the past, the oil industry, so vital to this state and nation’s development and its economy, is a formidable and often compelling interest.

But with Brown’s signature, a new law soon will be in place. And change finally seems to be in the air.

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