Double Play for Global Warming

BY Spencer Michels  September 2, 2010 at 1:32 PM EDT

There’s a fight brewing on an issue that seemed settled in 2006. That was when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, flexing his environmental credentials, signed into law a measure that requires a statewide cut in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That amounts to about a 15 percent decrease, a move designed to lower the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants emitted by manufacturers, power generators, oil companies, ships and any other sources of greenhouse gases.

Environmentalists cheered at the law, which is still known as Assembly Bill 32, even though it’s now a law. (Its official title is the Global Warming Solutions Act.) And Schwarzenegger boasted that California led the nation, and possibly the world, in promoting green energy and reducing dangerous emissions.

The law says that 33 percent of California’s electricity must come from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal – a very high standard, that some utilities thought would be difficult to achieve.

So four years after the law was passed, two Texas oil companies, Tesoro and Valero, and some smaller allies, decided they would like to get rid of AB32 and its onerous requirements. Claiming the rules were too stringent in the midst of an economic recession they wrote an initiative measure that -if voters approve it — would suspend the provisions of the law until the state achieves a 5.5 per cent unemployment rate or less for four consecutive quarters.

That might never happen, or at least not for a long time. So essentially, the new measure – Proposition 23 on this November’s ballot – is a repeal of the global warming solutions law.

Small business owners, plus some large ones, think that’s a great idea. They complain that forcing them to comply with strict emissions controls will cost them money and jobs in tough economic times.

One central California business owner said he’d have to replace 37 of his 38 semi tractor vehicles within four years, and that would probably force him out of business -costing the community 40 jobs.

But those who support AB32, and oppose Proposition 23 say that many green companies have already begun counting on the reduction in greenhouse gasses, and are basing their own businesses in solar, wind and other renewables on the new standards. They say the alternative is to remain totally dependent on fossil fuels.

The League of Conservation Voters says all the regulations California has adopted for a clean energy future could be invalidated if Prop. 23 passes.

Schwarzenegger, who championed the law, has backed off a little, agreeing that some of the rules should be implemented more slowly than some officials would like.

The issue has become part of the governor’s race, with Jerry Brown, the Democrat, strongly opposing Prop. 23, while his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, has said that AB 32 is a job killer. For a long time she didn’t commit, but late this summer she said in a radio interview that in all likelihood she will vote against Prop. 23.

Besides the fight over the new initiative, there is a fight over what it will actually mean, if it passes. How much of California’s pioneering green industry will be tossed out? Will auto emissions be effected? What about rules for ships, and dozens of other specific regulations? That will be for the courts to decide.

Polling on the issue is a bit murky, since the issues are fairly complicated. The Public Policy Institute of California asked “Should the government take action to reduce emissions right away or wait until the state economy and job situation improve? Fifty-three percent said take action immediately, while 42 percent said wait.

The measure has yet to generate a big debate, but some writers consider it the most contentious initiative on the November ballot. With a lot of money involved, voters will soon be barraged with TV commercials on both sides.