CA Democrats scale back emissions bill

MIAMI - JULY 11:  Exhaust flows out of the tailpipe of a vehicle at , "Mufflers 4 Less", July 11, 2007 in Miami, Florida. Florida Governor Charlie Crist plans on adopting California's tough car-pollution standards for reducing greenhouse gases under executive orders he plans to sign Friday in Miami.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In a remarkable reversal, California Democrats have dropped a main provision in landmark legislation ratcheting up emissions regulations. As Republicans cheered, liberals nationwide decried the turnabout, with Golden State environmentalists blaming a sizable campaign against the bills launched by a nervous oil industry.

Fueling fears

Petroleum interests were able to use Democrats’ dramatic objectives to raise an effective alarm in one of the most reliably anti-carbon states in the union. “The oil industry has poured money into a campaign against SB350, calling the legislation the ‘California Gas Restriction Act of 2015’ and warning that it could lead to bans on SUVs,” as ThinkProgress noted; according to the original terms of the bill, passed by the state Senate, California would be committed to a 50 percent reduction in gasoline use in both cars and trucks. In the new bill, expected to clear the Assembly, that provision has been removed.

Substantial curbs on emissions remained, however. “The amended bill still aims to curb carbon emissions from two other sectors of the energy industry,” the Wall Street Journal observed. “Using 2016 levels as the starting point, the legislation would require the state’s utilities to get half their power from renewable sources and all buildings in the state to increase their energy efficiency by 50 percent.”

Nevertheless, the more modest version of SB350 marked the second of two big disappointments for environmentalist policy advocates in California and around the country. As the Journal added, SB32, which would slash state emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels before 2050, also passed a vote in the Senate only to run aground in the Assembly.

Sharp rhetoric

Supporters of SB350, including Senate Leader Kevin de Leon, were adamant that industry scaremongering scuttled the 50 percent petroleum cut. Remarking on the bill’s modification, the New York Times reported, he said, “Big Oil might be on the right side of their shareholder reports, but we’re on the right side of history.”

Activists sharpened the message on their own terms. “Kathryn Phillips, who runs the Sierra Club’s California chapter, went even further, saying that the oil industry was waging ‘war on humanity’ by blocking efforts to reduce heat-emissions as much as scientists say is necessary to avert catastrophe,” MSNBC noted. Phillips, the network added, described the industry as “ruthless” and “determined to tell every lie they can and to scare people to death just so they can keep as much market share as possible.”

But a different, more practical factor weighed heavily on the minds of skittish Democrats. “The decision on how to carry out the proposed cuts would have been left to the state’s Air Resources Board, a matter of strong concern to many lawmakers,” according to the Times. If the board made decisions adversely impacting constituents, many of whom have already been struggling economically, the consequences could be dire. What’s more, angry voters would have little way to respond but at the ballot box.

An uncertain future

For now, however, anger was concentrated among climate activists convinced that the world’s fortunes depend in outsized measure on California’s ability to demonstrate a path forward on strict emissions reductions. “If they can’t succeed in their ambitions,” MSNBC suggested of Sacramento’s liberals, “it raises serious questions about the fate of a hoped for global climate agreement this December in Paris.”

Their dismay was compounded by the outright defeat of this year’s other embattled emissions bill, SB32, introduced by state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. “Pavley tried to overcome opposition to her measure by changing it to provide more legislative oversight of the state’s powerful Air Resources Board,” the Los Angeles Times noted. But skeptics were unmoved, the Times reported. Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office pulled its support out of concerns that it had become toothless, leaving Pavley to promise she would reintroduce the bill next year.

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