By Rev. Jim Conn, minister of the Church in Ocean Park and former Santa Monica City Councilman and Mayor.
I hope the oil lobbyists in Sacramento broke out some high-priced champagne this weekend. They deserve it. They just scuttled the biggest and most likely-to-succeed effort in the history of California to save the planet.
Senate Bills 350 and 32 had already passed in the upper house. As my Capital & Main colleague Bill Raden summarized, SB 32, authored by state Senator Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, would "extend the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions" achieved a few years back through Assembly Bill 32. SB 350, introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles - named after the threshold of carbon particles per million that our planetary life cannot surpass - aimed to set standards for California that would "double the energy efficiency of its older buildings, generate half of its electricity from renewable sources and cut its petroleum use in half by the by 2030."
Instead the oil lobby killed both bills in the Assembly. SB 32 was tabled to next year and SB 350 passed only after the oil provision was gutted. How did Big Oil do this? Mostly the old-fashioned way: It contributed to the campaigns of middle-of-the-road Democrats, then called in the chits.
A small group of Assembly members from marginally Democratic districts hold the balance of power in the lower house because the Republicans already solidly oppose any legislation that would curtail the unmitigated power of the fossil fuel industry. The oil lobby, led by the Western States Petroleum Association, focused on Democrats who represent heavily Latino and African-American constituents - a population it perceives as vulnerable to gas price hikes, even though, as the Los Angeles Times wrote, in some of those districts the pollution is so thick it makes people sick. These electeds represent such districts as West Covina and Rialto in Southern California, and Elk Grove and Fresno in the north.
The leader of the pack is Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno. He raises lots of money to elect other so-called moderates, and a chunk of it comes from Big Oil. The Times says 30 percent of the $6 million Perea has raised since 2012 came from oil interests and utility companies (which have a stake in fossil fuels' energy generation).
Here's the sadness: Perea says he believes in climate change. He just thinks that struggling middle-class and poor people in the districts that Big Oil has targeted are not the same as those living in the affluent coastal zones, where people can afford higher gas prices. That's the oil lobby's scare message: People who can least afford it will have to pay more for gas and, scarier, there may not be enough fuel to buy at any price. Then they always trot out scenarios of impending disaster for people already pressed to find decent jobs. They pit health and the earth against the costs and availability of fuel, plus the implied loss of jobs. They predict immediate economic catastrophe against a vague, distant hope for environmental healing.
Just to make sure they stopped any legislated reduction in oil use, the lobbyists not only threw all their weight into the Capitol during the last weeks of this session, they also bought television ads and radio spots in the media markets that included the districts where they had spent money to elect these Assembly people in the first place. One ad shows a family - including a diapered toddler - pushing the family van because they can't buy gas.These are hard and frightening choices, and too often fear tips the scales. But the Earth is where all the people live. If we are going to survive and thrive, the California economy, the world's seventh or eighth largest depending on what day it is, must do it without using all that oil. Using fewer fossil fuels will also make the air healthier - reducing the cases of asthma and respiratory diseases that plague intense transportation corridors. And the job-killer predictions have seldom if ever come true.
Big Oil also bought full-page ads in newspapers across the state and enlisted their natural allies to do the same. An ad in the Los Angeles Times was bought by the California Trucking Association. It argued that all those companies and drivers that just invested in new carbon-lowering emission trucks would now have to lose everything because of these new efforts in Sacramento. From the ad you would think that every truck on the road was now required to be a new, low-emission vehicle. They are not. Only a small percentage of trucks that actually go to-and-from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach meet healthier standards - and those trucks were part of a program that made them financially feasible. Reducing fuel usage is not necessarily an added burden.
The good news is that Governor Jerry Brown has vowed to come back swinging next year. We can count on Senator Pavley because she has put this kind of legislation into the hopper ever since she arrived in Sacramento. And the Senate's leader, Kevin de León, promises to do so again. What the Assembly will do, no one knows, because next year it will have new leadership, but the same gang of "oilists" will still hold their seats.
Meanwhile the days and months and years get closer to that magic 350 tipping-point number, when the Earth won't support life as we've come to enjoy it. I can't help but think that the children of the folks popping the corks today will wish that their parents had been celebrating something very different.
Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city's mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was its second chair, and was a founder of Santa Monica's renter's rights campaign.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author and Capital & Main.