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California’s climate law: Good for consumers, bad for polluters

In one of his final acts as the President pro Tem of the California State Senate, Darrell Steinberg penned a letter to Assemblyman Henry Perea over the weekend with the news that Mr. Perea’s Assembly Bill 69 would not receive a hearing before the end of this year’s legislative session.

The bill takes aim at California’s cap and trade program, a key element of the Global Warming Solutions Act (aka AB 32), enacted in 2006 to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 20 percent by 2020.  Specifically, AB 69 would stall the expansion of cap and trade to oil and gas refineries for three years. Now that the bill is effectively dead in Sacramento, those refineries will come under the cap and trade system in January 2015 as originally scheduled.

Over the past several months, Perea and some of his Central and San Joaquin Valley colleagues have argued that the expansion of cap and trade could harm their constituents by increasing transportation costs, specifically gas prices. But this argument fails to account for the massive costs today’s transportation system already levels on struggling communities in those same regions. Central and San Joaquin Valley residents already live with air quality consistently rated as the worst in the nation; as a result, these communities spend billions of dollars in annual medical costs and lost wages. Had it passed, AB 69 would have delayed the very state climate policies that will lead to cleaner air in these regions, such as investments in more efficient vehicles, affordable and accessible transit options, and transit-oriented development.

Don’t get us wrong: We absolutely share Assemblyman Perea’s concerns about disproportionate transportation costs in low-income and disadvantaged California communities. However, we also agree with Senator Steinberg when he writes, “If we are serious about reducing fuel costs and righting the public health and economic wrongs faced by our constituents, we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels and invest in cleaner transportation alternatives.” Maintaining the status quo is simply not a solution. Our No Californian Left Behind series gives examples of the types of innovative solutions we can implement to simultaneously ease the economic burden of transportation costs, improve air quality, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   

While Senator Steinberg’s letter is by no means an exhaustive accounting of the risks posed by climate change – as he acknowledges near the end, “I could go on” – but it’s a solid laundry list of the reasons California must push forward with our current climate policies.

Here are the top 10 reasons why Steinberg thinks we need to move forward, not backward, on reducing California’s climate risks:

  1. Rising Pollution, Rising Healthcare Costs – Five California cities top the American Lung Association’s list for the worst air quality in the country. The state has more than 12 million residents who breathe air unsuitable under federal standards, according to the Air Resources Board, and “air pollution inflicts a $28 billion burden annually in health and economic costs” in Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley alone.    
  2. Overwhelming Public Support for Action – In 2010, California voters rejected a similar proposal 62–38, “despite $10 million from the oil industry attempting to convince voters otherwise.”
  3. The Oil Industry Should Do Its Part – “Utilities have been operating under cap-and-trade for years at no discernible cost to the public,” and the oil and gas industry has been slated to do so as well for years. This is not the “hidden gas tax” that the industry is making it out to be. 
  4. Harm to Clean Investments – The 2014–15 budget signed into law in June allocates $200 million for disadvantaged communities for climate solutions and transit-oriented development.  AB 69 would hamper progress made on clean transportation infrastructure investments that help low income households spend less on transit.
  5. Bait and Switch – Perea’s AB 69 was originally a bill regarding nitrates in drinking water, which was then altered to focus on AB 32 after the deadline for submitting new legislation – a process known in the capitol as “gut and amend.” “A measure of this importance,” Steinberg argued, “should not be considered in the final weeks of a two-year session.”  
  6. Water Scarcity – 100 percent of California is now experiencing drought conditions, with about 80 percent in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Rising temperatures along with reduced rainfall and snow pack have already cost the state billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, particularly in the agricultural economy. These conditions will only grow more extreme in a warming climate.
  7. Fighting Fire – Wildfires in California have become a year-round menace as temperatures rise and precipitation levels decrease. “Annual acreage burned by wildfires since 2000 alone is almost twice that for the 1950–2000 period,” and fighting wildfires could cost the state over $1 billion this year alone.
  8. Vulnerable Specialty Crops – California’s $42 billion agriculture sector is the nation’s primary source of many temperature-sensitive specialty crops, including wine grapes, almonds, apricots, artichokes, and figs.  A warmer climate puts these crops at serious risk in Fresno County and throughout the Central and San Joaquin Valley regions.
  9. Coastal Threat – “Rising sea levels threaten 480,000 people and $100 billion in property with catastrophic flooding.” Sea level rise threatens critical public infrastructure including roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, and power plants along California’s more than 1000 miles of coastline.
  10. “The painful economics of doing nothing” – Delaying the expansion of cap-and-trade to transportation fuels would only increase the huge price tag the state would face from the impacts of climate change in the future. Air pollution results in lost work days, asthma attacks, premature deaths, and heart attacks.

We applaud Senator Steinberg’s commitment to preparing California for a more sustainable, low-carbon future.

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