In Gutting California Climate Bill, Big Oil Won Skirmish — But Not War

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In Gutting California Climate Bill, Big Oil Won Skirmish — But Not War

"It's a sad day when oil industry lies stand in the way of clean air, but if the industry thinks they have won a victory, it will be short-lived."

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and California Gov. Jerry Brown both blamed the oil industry for foiling the climate bill. (Photo: AP)

Big Oil has succeeded in dismantling a key component of California's sweeping climate change bill, with legislative leaders announcing Wednesday afternoon that in the wake of an intense lobbying campaign, they would drop a measure calling for a 50 percent cut in petroleum use by 2030.

The fossil fuel industry had poured money into advertising and lobbying campaigns against Senate Bill 350 (SB350), calling the legislation the "California Gas Restriction Act of 2015" and warning that it could lead to gas-rationing, bans on SUVs, and the demise of oil companies.

Supporters had a different take, saying that SB 350 represented "an opportunity for our state to go in a new direction, allowing us all to avoid toiling away to stop yet another toxic power plant in our backyard, and it can also reverse our destructive reliance on fossil fuels," as one young activist, Evelyn García, wrote in the lead up to this week's showdown. 

Among climate leaders like 350.org's Jamie Henn, there was little doubt that the fossil fuel industry's "bottomless war chest" was to blame for the defeat.

At a press conference Wednesday, Senate President pro Tempore Kevin De León noted that the bill's remaining sections—which call for the state to boost energy efficiency in buildings by 50 percent and to get half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030—"are in and of themselves landmark achievements."

"But in the end—with two days left," he said, "we could not cut through the million-dollar smokescreen created by a single special-interest with a singular motive and a bottomless war chest."

De León didn't stop there. "[T]he fact that, despite overwhelming scientific opinion and statewide public support, we still weren’t able to overcome the silly-season scare tactics of an outside industry which has repeatedly opposed environmental progress and energy innovation—means that there’s a temporary disconnect in our politics which needs to be overcome," he declared.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, echoed those charges while expressing optimism about the road ahead. "Oil has won a skirmish," Brown said at the press conference. "But they lost a bigger battle, because I am more determined than ever to make our regulatory regime work for the people of California."

According to KQED News:

[Gov. Brown and Sen. De León] said the oil industry’s main goal was actually to include provisions in SB 350 that would strip power from the California Air Resources Board, the regulatory agency that has overseen the state’s ambitious push toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The board has been a frequent target of Republicans and business groups opposed to the state’s already-ambitious climate change laws.

“Look, we had a long discussion. It’s very simple — if we said turn every rule that the ARB makes over to the Legislature, then we get the bill, if we don’t do that, then (they) kill it,” Brown said of negotiations with oil companies in recent days.

But he added, “California is not going to miss a beat, be very clear about that, we don’t have a declaration in statute, but we have absolutely the same authority we had going forward. The only difference is my zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree, and nothing is going to stop the state from pushing forward.”

"It's a sad day when oil industry lies stand in the way of clean air, but if the industry thinks they have won a victory, it will be short-lived," the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. However, it continued, "California's leadership and communities across the state are more determined than ever to reduce petroleum dependence."

Henn, of 350.org, agreed, pointing to a specific step that Brown could take to strike back against fossil fuels.

"Big Oil succeeded in gutting one of the most important provisions of this bill," Henn said in a statement. "Let's face it: Governor Brown got his hat handed to him. Now, the clearest way he can fight back against the industry is by banning fracking in California—and that's something he can do on his own, without the State Legislature."

Added Oil Change International's David Turnbull on Twitter:

The newly gutted bill is expected to be voted on this week.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in California, environmentalists rejoiced as the University of California's chief investment officer on Wednesday said it has sold off about $200 million of direct holdings in coal and tar sands companies, which he said were no longer good investments for the university's $98.2 billion fund.

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