Democratic Leader Bullish on Calif. Energy Plan

Democratic Leader Bullish on Calif. Energy Plan
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California Democrats are optimistic that the state will be able to achieve sweeping new environmental objectives outlined in recently passed legislation, the state’s Senate president said Wednesday.

His assessment was expressed at an event in Sacramento hosted by RealClearPolitics and sponsored by the Diesel Technology Forum. RCP Washington Bureau Chief Carl Cannon quizzed Kevin de León, president pro tempore of the California Senate, as well as environmental and business experts about the state’s energy and climate challenges.

De León, a Democrat, lauded Senate Bill 350, which passed the upper chamber last week and now heads to the state Assembly. But its prospects in the lower chamber are less certain than they were in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where no Republicans voted for the measure.

The bill, if approved by the Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, would compel the state to accomplish three ambitious goals by the year 2030: reduce petroleum use by half; double the energy efficiency of existing buildings; and increase electricity generation from renewable resources to 50 percent of total output.

“I wouldn’t question the will of the Assembly members, especially those affected by the ongoing drought,” de León said at the event, titled “50/50/50 by 2030: Transportation and the California Energy Challenge.”

Though the Assembly is more moderate, Democrats still hold a majority, de León noted. The lower chamber passed the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006, which required the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s Republican governor at the time, signed it into law.

De León, the first Hispanic to hold his Senate position in more than 130 years, said the urgency to move forward on SB 350 is overwhelming. “Harmful emissions of carbon” will harm California’s economy, he said.

The state has seen its unemployment rate decrease steadily from a high of 12.2 percent in October 2010. It currently stands at 6.3 percent, but is still higher than the national average of 5.5 percent.

According to de León, protecting the environment and addressing the “negative, devastating impacts” of climate change should be a bipartisan issue. “If you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you’re breathing the same contaminants into your lungs,” he said, adding he has had private conversations with Republicans who agree with him but are wary of the political consequences of supporting SB 350. “Which person wouldn’t want to pay less for a gallon of gasoline?”

Bob Huff, the state Senate’s GOP minority leader, has called the goals of the bill 350 noble, but questioned what it will accomplish if jobs and manufacturing plants move to other states or countries. Other Republicans have been more blunt, labeling it a job-killer.

De León does not buy the argument that the legislation, if enacted, would damage the state’s economy. In his view, the marketplace alone could not possibly compensate for environmental costs such as increased cases of asthma and other impacts of rampant pollution.

Asked by an audience member why nuclear energy is not a higher priority for lawmakers, de León said he isn’t an expert on it but keeps an open mind to new ideas.

During a panel discussion that followed de León’s appearance, a business leader said nuclear energy is not politically viable in the state, and investments in nuclear energy will not be made. “It’s all about renewables,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable.

Lapsley, like Huff, expressed doubt in SB 350, but said he supports the overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to Lapsley, the cost impacts of the proposed regulations need to be given more scrutiny to ensure that California stays competitive economically. He said there is a “grave concern” among business leaders about the elimination of fossil fuels in the state.

“California is well on its way to achieving its goals for 2020. We are there,” Lapsley said, questioning the wisdom of adopting new provisions when the current ones are already proving to be successful.

He also doubted whether, as de León argued, other states will follow suit in adopting similar environmental goals: “It’s a very fine line in the current policy of how you implement it to succeed versus how you implement it for others to follow.”

Little time passed, however, before criticisms were leveled at lawmakers in the nation’s capital. “We’re not going to wait for Washington, D.C.” to act on climate change, de León said. “We never have. We never will. We are the state of California. We are the leaders nationally … and they will eventually follow.”

The Senate leader believes the Assembly will pass SB 350 this year and that Brown will sign it immediately. In 15 years, he said confidently, the Golden State will be leading the way on climate change and energy efficiency.

“There’s nothing like the California spirit.”

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