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Time Is Running Short For California Climate Law

The sun sets on a power generating plant in Huntington Beach, Aug. 31, 2006.
Chris Carlson
File photo of the sun setting on a power generating plant in Huntington Beach, Aug. 31, 2006.

With three weeks left in California's legislative session, Gov. Jerry Brown and other advocates of extending the state's ambitious efforts to fight climate change are struggling to persuade enough lawmakers to go along.

Environmentalists want to protect the litany of emissions-targeting programs before their legal authorization comes into doubt in 2020, but they've met stiff opposition from oil companies, Republicans and moderate Democrats. Brown is seeking to extend and strengthen a 2006 law known as AB32, which aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Collectively, California's climate programs are credited with reducing the state's carbon emissions even as the demand for energy increases.


Environmentally minded lawmakers are promoting SB32 by Sen. Fran Pavley, a Democrat from Agoura Hills who wrote the original 2006 greenhouse gas targets. Pavley's bill would require that emissions be cut 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Here's a look at where that effort stands:

Why is the bill so important to environmentalists?

SB32 would extend the life of AB32, which was signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and is the legal authority behind California's aggressive carbon policies being watched around the world.

AB32 underpins the state's cap-and-trade program, which forces companies that pollute to meet tougher emissions standards or pay to exceed them. The program has generated billions to fight climate change, a quarter of which fund Brown's favored high-speed rail project.


The 2006 bill also led to California's low-carbon fuel standard, which requires oil companies to reduce the carbon content of their fuels by 10 percent.

Is anything likely to happen this year?

Groups representing oil interests confirmed last month they were in direct talks with the Brown administration over cap-and-trade. But in a sense of growing frustration and apparent pessimism, officials in the governor's office and Legislature last week lowered expectations for imminent progress.

Brown's executive secretary, Nancy McFadden, said in a message posted to Twitter that "we will not play into the hands of oil companies by telegraphing our strategy or settle for measures that weaken, undermine or diminish our world-leading climate programs."

The Democratic governor also laid the groundwork for a potential ballot measure in 2018, which could give him leverage with lawmakers and business interests, and also serve as a backup plan if the Legislature continues to be a roadblock.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, told reporters he would not negotiate a "bad deal" in order to pass a weakened climate bill.

Lawmakers have only until the end of August to pass legislation, and the November elections will bring new faces to Sacramento — possibly moving the political direction of the Assembly to the left or right.

Why is this an issue now?

The imminent expiration of the 2020 targets and a pending lawsuit targeting the cap-and-trade program have cast uncertainty on California's climate efforts. It all comes as Brown, who has a reputation as a climate crusader and has staked his legacy on reducing emissions, enters his final two years in office.

The California Chamber of Commerce lawsuit contends the cap-and-trade program is an illegal tax that should have been approved by a two-thirds majority of lawmakers. The state contends it is a fee.

Extending the law with a supermajority of votes would bolster the state's case in defense of cap-and-trade, but it's highly unlikely in the current political environment.

Who's opposed?

Republicans are united in their opposition to Pavley's bill, which cleared the Senate more than a year ago without any GOP votes.

It's now hit a roadblock in the Assembly, where moderate Democrats — primarily from less-affluent inland districts in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, have succeeded in blocking or watering down previous climate change legislation.

In a bid for support, Pavley paired the bill with legislation that would increase oversight of the state's climate programs.

Oil companies and business groups also oppose it, warning it will raise gas prices and harm economic growth.

What if lawmakers do nothing?

There are a lot of lawyers trying to figure that out.

The Air Resources Board, which administers the carbon program, argues that it has the authority to continue beyond 2020 and has started the regulatory process to do so. The Legislature's top lawyer disagrees. Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine has said only the Legislature can set carbon-emissions limits.

The ARB has released a proposed blueprint for continuing the cap-and-trade program until 2030 and is expected to vote next year on whether to adopt it.