California & climate: Glass half full, or half empty?
I’m writing this week from Aspen, Colorado, where it is – no surprise – raining. As we all know, last week Colorado was beset by flooding so severe that even the National Weather Service called it “biblical.” There is some debate over the question of whether the Colorado flood was caused, directly or indirectly, by climate change. But as Chris Mooney points out in his very good Mother Jones piece on the issue, “The idea that there will be more extreme rainfall, in general, in a warming world is very well established scientifically at this point.”
Being out of town for a few days has given me a chance to look in at California with fresher eyes. I think sometimes those of us lucky enough to live in the state with the world’s best climate and energy policies (yes, I’m biased) can lose perspective, and forget the hard fights and long legislative slogs that got us to where we are – and those we still have to fight to stay ahead.
Take the recent state legislative session. 2013 has been called a bad year in Sacramento for environmental measures, and indeed, it could have been better. But let’s take a step back and look at what was accomplished this year.
- First of all, we seriously rocked the house on solar energy. SB 43, through amazing efforts by many of you readers, establishes the largest shared solar energy program in the U.S., by allowing anyone in the state to purchase up to 100 percent of their power from renewable sources, opening up clean power to renters (like me) who don’t own a rooftop or yard. AB 217 extends California’s solar access program, so that low-income homeowners actually can own their own solar panels. These two bills are a clear win for Californians hoping to dramatically scale up deployment of small-scale solar in the state; AB 327, while more controversial, adds to this by preserving the state’s net metering law (allowing those who generate renewable power to sell it back into the grid) through mid-2017.
- We didn’t do so badly on fuels either. SB 448 protects consumers against potential price-fixing in the gasoline and diesel markets, and requires the state to provide detailed information on fuel price volatility in its biennial reports – opening up the issue of the inherent volatility, and riskiness, of the liquid fuel market to public scrutiny. Meanwhile, AB 8/SB 11 extends funding programs for clean transportation in a variety of sectors, which (as NRDC’s Max Baumhefner argues) will strengthen California’s clean vehicle market and solidify our place as the national EV leader. And SB 459, one of my favorite bills this season, is essentially California’s answer to the national “cash for clunkers” program – it gives vehicle owners incentive to replace old cars and trucks with more fuel-efficient models, and targets low-income vehicle owners in particular.
- And of course how could I leave out SB 73, the bill that implements Proposition 39 and puts billions into energy upgrades in California’s public schools? I’ve written about this one ad nauseum, and am generally very positive about where it will end up.
Now for the one you’ve all been waiting for … SB 4, widely known as “the fracking bill” even though, as we’ve repeatedly pointed out, it also covers the lesser-known drilling technique of acid well stimulation or “acidizing.” This one has generated a huge amount of press and controversy (the LA Times is against it, the SJ Merc is for it, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). I have friends I hugely respect on both sides of the issue.
Here’s what I think: we all need to take a step back. The fact is that, when it comes to oil and gas regulation, California has not been a leader. We’ve actually been behind other states in regulating oil and gas production, particularly new drilling techniques like fracking, putting us behind more traditionally conservative states like Ohio and Colorado. That’s embarrassing, especially since we’re the third largest oil producing state in the nation (behind only Texas and North Dakota). And, as we detail in the latest installment of our series on the Monterey Shale, we could soon see the next oil boom in California. The industry is a big, big player in Sacramento politics, and it doesn’t want to be told what to do.
That’s why Senator Pavley’s accomplishment in actually moving SB 4 – a bill requiring these same companies to disclose the chemicals they use in their drilling practices (at a level more strict than any other state fracking bill), regulating acidizing for the first time ever in legislative history as far as I know, and requiring these same companies to actually test and monitor groundwater quality – is a huge deal. New data out this week from the University of Texas show that environmental damage, particularly methane leakage, from gas fracking operations is definitely a problem, but one that can apparently be contained if the right regulations are in place. SB 4, which is focused on containment, ain’t perfect. But it’s a start.
Before everyone starts sending me angry emails, I should remind readers that I am a huge proponent of a total transformation of our energy economy to truly renewable sources. I think we need to use less, and diversify more. I’m thrilled that the 9th Circuit just upheld California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which is a key tool in our fuel diversification toolkit. But I also think we need to put some rules in place for the stuff we’re already doing, and then we need to be vigilant and make sure companies follow those rules, and the legislature improves on them.
What’s the upshot of all this? We live in a state that’s trying hard to do the right thing on energy and climate, at a time when our federal government holds hearings to debate climate science and question the need for action.
Take a second to celebrate, people! Then get up tomorrow, re-energized, and continue to fight the good fight.