Dan Morain

An oil fight unlike any other

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, left, Gov. Jerry Brown and Tom Steyer.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, left, Gov. Jerry Brown and Tom Steyer. The Associated Press

In California, Chevron, Tesoro and other oil giants are acting as if the end is near.

The grim reaper, as they see it, comes in the person of Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist, and his buddy, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León. The instrument of their demise is de León’s Senate Bill 350, which would require Californians to cut gasoline consumption by up to 50 percent by 2030.

De León calls it The Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015. In television ads and mailers intended to persuade legislators to vote against SB 350, the oil industry derides it as The California Gas Restriction Act of 2015.

Big Oil has engaged in political fights before, whenever legislators pushed bills to require better mileage, higher taxes and cleaner fuel. More often than not, the industry has won.

“SB 350 is something entirely different,” said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. “It is an attempt to essentially put oil companies out of business.”

Hyperbole is part of the arsenal. But de León’s legislation does takes direct aim at the oil companies’ fundamental product in the nation’s largest single market. And what happens in California does tend to spread.

Polls show most California voters believe climate change is upon us. We also love our wheels. Oil industry consultants are betting that politicians will think twice about casting votes that could be tied to price spikes in a few years.

The ads warn of state-mandated gasoline rationing, surcharges on minivans, penalties on people who consume too much gas, and invasion of motorists’ privacy by tapping into their cars’ on-board computers. None of it is true, de León says.

“The irony is they’re scaring the very same people who are most harmed by the product, working-class folks. There is a perverseness to it,” de León told me last week.

De León says he is “not anti-oil” and called Chevron “a very good California company.” But he also says the state has “to build a new economy; we have to reduce the harmful carbon emissions.”

The goal of ending oil dependence is noble. But there are basic questions starting with how the state would attain the reduction, given motorists’ wants and needs.

Last week, Global Automakers, a trade group that includes Ferrari, Maserati, and Japanese and Korean models, sent de León a letter saying SB 350 fails to provide the “automobile industry with the flexibility needed” to reduce petroleum use by half by 2030.

“Given current and evolving technologies, the only way to achieve that level of reduction would be if every new car sold in 2030 and beyond were a Zero Emission Vehicle. Global Automakers believes that is a laudable but unattainable goal,” the letter says.

Californians account for half the sales nationally of zero-emission vehicles, 58,546 of the 116,916 sold last year. But they are a fraction of overall new car sales in California, 3.2 percent last year, and 2.4 percent in the first five months of 2015.

De León had no trouble getting SB 350 out of his house. It passed on a party-line 24-14 vote. The Assembly will be another story. Gov. Jerry Brown is helping. He and de León intend to attend a global climate summit in Paris later this year. They’d have plenty to boast about if SB 350 becomes law.

Climate change warriors such as Steyer believe SB 350 would be an important step toward attaining the goal of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the current 400 parts per million to below 350 parts per million, essential, they believe, to maintaining a liveable planet.

Steyer, who retired in 2012 from the San Francisco hedge fund that made him rich, was in Sacramento last week to receive the thanks of California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton for helping fund the effort to have the new Democratic Party headquarters certified as environmentally correct.

Environmentalist Tom Steyer spent $1.6 million on California campaigns in 2013-14. That isn’t pocket change, except that Chevron, Tesoro, Valero and Occident Petroleum spent $17.1 million.

Steyer, in campaign mode, is paying to send pro-SB 350 mailers into the districts of Assembly Democrats. He also attended a Mass at St. Anthony Mary Claret Catholic Church at the south end of Fresno, in Assemblyman Henry Perea’s district. Perea is a leader of the moderate Democrats, who, for now, are withholding support for SB 350.

“None,” Perea said of the impact of Steyer’s efforts. “As I walk my dogs around the neighborhood, no one is pulling me aside and asking me about 350.”

Steyer spread $1.6 million to California state campaigns last year. That isn’t pocket change, except that Chevron spent $11.6 million on California campaigns in 2013 and 2014, and Tesoro, Valero and Occidental Petroleum spent another $5.5 million.

Employing the tried-and-true technique of selecting and electing legislators who are open to their arguments, if not malleable, oil companies gave money to no fewer than 24 Assembly Democrats in 2014. Some more than others.

The industry-funded Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class spent $520,000 to elect Jim Cooper to the Elk Grove-area Assembly seat. Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, also heavily funded by oil companies, spent $445,000 for Cooper. Cooper says he made no promises to donors other than to “be fair and listen to everybody’s position.”

“My folks aren’t driving electric vehicles,” Cooper told me. “If gas prices spike, that will hurt them. I support the concept (of SB 350), but how do we get there in a smart way?”

What is and isn’t smart is relative. Oil companies are smart, and will adapt to whatever politicians concoct. Legislators will do what’s in their best interests. Let’s hope it’s in our interests, too.

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