SACRAMENTO - He is gaining a reputation as the green governor who is marshaling California in the fight against global warming. But Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the last people in the Capitol to join the battle, and has earned so-so grades from environmental activists.Schwarzenegger seems to be everywhere as the crowd-friendly face of environmental activism. Catch him on the cover of Newsweek, balancing a fragile globe on the tip of a finger, or giving a big environmental speech in Washington.
On Thursday he addressed the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Diane Sawyer interviewed him about the environment for ABC, Charlie Rose did so for PBS, Hannity & Colmes for Fox. And Britain's Conservative Party has booked him for a fall trip to spread the message abroad.
MTV viewers will even find Schwarzenegger in a cameo on "Pimp My Ride'' on Earth Day, April 22. He will inspect a 1965 Chevy Impala that has been given an 800-horsepower engine powered by clean-burning fuel.
His aim, Schwarzenegger said in Washington this week, is to make environmentalism "hip."
"You don't have to get rid of SUVs, you don't have to get rid of Hummers,'' he said. "We need to take the technology and make clean engines. That is the message.''
Back home, environmentalists see the governor's green credentials as thin.
The governor has taken more than $1 million in campaign money from the oil industry, whose products contribute to the greenhouse gas buildup that Schwarzenegger says he wants to roll back. And he is not reliable in using his bill-signing powers to protect the environment, activists say.
Each year, the California League of Conservation Voters puts out an annual scorecard that rates the governor on a scale of 0 to 100, based on the environmental bills he has signed or vetoed. Last year, Schwarzenegger's grade was 50, down from the previous two years when he logged a 58.
Gray Davis, the governor Schwarzenegger ousted in the 2003 recall, scored 75 in 2002 and 85 the year before that.
"Despite the governor's public embrace of the environment, his record on signing good environmental bills into law remains mediocre,'' the league said in its annual report card.
Schwarzenegger administration officials insist that the governor is a progressive force for environmental protection.
He has formed partnerships with Britain and Western states to curb greenhouse gas emissions; endorsed a program to install as many as 1 million rooftop systems for solar electricity; and set aside money to remove older, high-polluting cars from the road.
But it was two Democratic lawmakers - not Schwarzenegger - who devised the law for which the governor is being celebrated.
The measure is aimed at cutting California's greenhouse gases 25% by 2020. Schwarzenegger was not the architect of the bill and at times seemed a reluctant partner in its adoption.
At a global warming conference in San Francisco last April, he voiced skepticism about new regulations.
"We don't want to go after business and make business leave the state,'' he said.
With only one day left in the legislative session, it was by no means certain that Schwarzenegger would sign the bill. Powerful interests stood in opposition. Business groups - the core of Schwarzenegger's fund-raising base - feared that it would jack up costs.
Schwarzenegger wanted business-friendly provisions that would allow companies to trade emissions credits, meaning some could pay for the right to pollute.
The governor's office offered "a number of amendments that would have watered down provisions of the mandatory reductions,'' Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), a coauthor of the bill, said in an interview.
A game of chicken followed. Nuñez told the governor's staff that he would push forward with or without Schwarzenegger's support. The governor threatened to veto the bill if his changes weren't adopted, Nuñez said.
With Nuñez poised to tell a news conference that he was proceeding alone and Schwarzenegger needing legislative achievements to fuel his reelection campaign, the governor signed on. The trading system Schwarzenegger wanted is allowed under the law but is not mandatory.
"It was touch-and-go until the very end as to whether or not the governor would sign the bill,'' said Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who was involved in the discussions.
Schwarzenegger used his veto power to quash other environmental bills.
One would have imposed a $30 fee on each container that moves through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, with the money devoted partly to cutting air pollution.
"It was not just an environmental bill, it was a bill that addressed a public health crisis,'' said the author, Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), citing the dangers of diesel particulates and other health hazards linked to the movement of goods.
The legislation was opposed by some of the governor's most stalwart business allies, including farmers, manufacturers and retailers such as Home Depot. In his veto message, Schwarzenegger said he was worried that raising fees might hinder the movement of products made in California.
Schwarzenegger killed another bill last year that would have made it state policy to take every step necessary to reduce dependence on oil. And he vetoed a measure that would have required that half of all cars sold in California by 2020 be capable of using alternative fuels.
Watchdog groups said the governor faces a conflict of interest by rejecting such legislation, given the campaign money he takes from the oil industry.
Chevron alone gave campaign committees supporting the governor about $345,000 in 2005-06.
"To see him climbing on board the same train with Al Gore could be beneficial,'' said Judy Dugan, research director for oilwatchdog.org, part of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "But money at the amounts that he takes pollutes what he's saying."
Terry Tamminen, who was environmental secretary during the governor's first term, suggested that the campaign donations helped to keep Schwarzenegger in office, permitting him to take pro-environment steps.
"It's very important for him to be elected to do the things he's been doing,'' said Tamminen, author of "Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction." Schwarzenegger "would be the first to tell you he didn't want to take contributions from anyone."
"But unfortunately, that's the way the system works," Tamminen said. "I would refer people to the actions he's taken. Our greenhouse gas policy hasn't been anything that Chevron has been saying thank you for.''
Still, audio recordings of the governor's private meetings show that his aides have seen political value in making the environment a pet issue.
"Every four or five weeks, we're going to spend an entire week on the environment,'' the governor's communications director, Adam Mendelsohn, told him in a private meeting in early 2006. " ... I do not believe it's smart politics here in California to not talk about your environmental stuff."
The recordings were made by the governor's speechwriting staff and mistakenly posted on Schwarzenegger's website.
They were copied by aides who were working for the governor's former Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, and made public.
In the recordings, Schwarzenegger seems to wonder if people would accept a high-living, Hummer-driving ex-muscleman as an environmentalist.
"Here I was driving Hummers," he says at one point. "I don't know if I leave myself open here by calling myself an environmentalist. So we should just be aware of that.''
Times staff writer Marc Lifsher contributed to this report.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times