Victories of SB 350 are incomplete, but lessons learned

Tom Steyer
Tom Steyer AP

Last week, the California Legislature passed a bill to protect the health of our children, create more clean energy jobs and take serious steps to address climate change. This historic legislation, Senate Bill 350, boosts California’s clean energy mix to 50 percent and increases energy efficiency in buildings by 50 percent.

The bill’s passage was a tremendous victory – but it was incomplete. Our triumph was tempered by a stark reminder of how power really works in the Capitol. Oil company lobbyists gutted part of the bill, removing a provision to reduce oil use in vehicles by 50 percent by 2030.

They killed the oil reduction goal despite the fact Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins stood united behind it. The goal, first outlined by Brown in January, would have demonstrated that California is serious about addressing the harmful effects of burning oil.

Instead, on a day when the air in Fresno was so dirty that children couldn’t safely play outside, a handful of Sacramento legislators were choosing between oil company profits and public health. Too many – notably including Fresno Assemblyman Henry Perea – chose to side with the polluters.

That’s because oil companies spend huge sums on lobbying in Sacramento. The oil industry has poured $118 million into lobbying our state government in the last decade, including $20 million in 2014.

The campaign against SB 350 typified their divisive approach. They spent millions of dollars waging a negative media campaign. They targeted lawmakers who represent some of the poorest districts in the state, where people are more likely to suffer environmental damage from oil pollution. They bent many of these legislators to their will and successfully put their own profits ahead of our most vulnerable citizens.

Sacramento’s inability to stand up to oil lobbyists is creating a state where clean air and water and basic environmental standards are only guaranteed for the wealthy, while poorer areas with larger Latino and African American populations suffer the consequences. These areas already feel the direct impacts of climate change – from record drought to polluted air and dirty water.

Every California family deserves a fair shake, and they would have benefited greatly from the oil pollution reduction portion of SB 350. Last week’s oil coup was disappointing, but this story is far from over.

Brown, who says his “zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree,” can still show oil companies who’s boss by adopting the oil reduction goals through executive authority. With the stroke of a pen, he can deliver the trinity of climate action goals.

SB 350 was a wake-up call. We must be more vigilant about the power that corporate interests hold over our Legislature. We must reject legislators who sell out the public interest for campaign cash. We must ensure that the penalty for siding against the people outweighs special interest money.

Working together, we can overcome the influence of bad actors and protect the public good. I have faith we can do it again, because we’ve done it before.

In 2010, Californians rejected Proposition 23, Big Oil’s multimillion-dollar campaign to reverse California’s greenhouse gas reduction law. In 2012, we overcame resistance from out-of-state corporations and closed a tax loophole with Proposition 39, directing hundreds of millions of dollars to schools.

The task before us now is clear. We must hold corporate special interests like oil companies accountable. The same goes for legislators who choose to serve corporate interests instead of serving their communities.

Tom Steyer is a businessperson, philanthropist and president of NextGen Climate.