Jerry Brown isn’t used to losing in the California Legislature.
And even though defections from a raft of fellow Democrats in Sacramento forced the second-term governor to abandon two sweeping anti-carbon measures, Brown vows to implement them anyway—through executive order.
“I’d say oil has won a skirmish, but they’ve lost the bigger battle, because I am more determined than ever to make our regulatory regime work for the people of California,” Brown told reporters last week after he had to pull a portion of a bill that required a 50-percent reduction in petroleum use by motor vehicles in the state by 2030.
Democrats control nearly two-thirds of the California Assembly, but intense opposition from oil companies as well as worries about how hard the mandate would hit poor and middle-income families—California has the highest gas prices in the continental United States—eroded support, forcing Brown and his allies to retreat.
There were also increasing calls among Republicans and moderate Democrats to rein in the power of the California Air Resources Board, the agency largely in charge of enforcing many of Brown’s climate initiatives.
“Certain people tried to tell a story that this bill was about the oil producers,” Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Merced Democrat, told the Sacramento Bee. “I think the real story is people having independent voices and standing up for their districts.”
Led by moderate Democrats, the Assembly also stopped another climate-related mandate trying to extend the state’s greenhouse gas emissions limit to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
“It just really resonated with Californians who don’t have a lot of disposable income,” said Michael Shires, associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University.
“One of the things that happens with a lot of this climate legislation is, people who are affluent paying more for gas or more for electricity, that’s just the cost of doing business,” Shires told Watchdog.org. “But for folks who are just kind of squeaking by, the economy hasn’t been real kind to them in the last couple years. That’s a tough thing to say, that you’re going to spend 5 or 10 percent more, or even 30 percent more on gas and electricity. That’s a big cost.”
Critics of Brown’s ambitious climate goals may not have much time to savor the victory, because the 77-year-old governor appears to be taking a page from the playbook of President Obama by doing an end-run around the Legislature and implementing many of the climate requirements by executive order.
“We don’t have a declaration in statute, but we have absolutely the same authority,” Brown said. “We’re going forward. The only thing different is my zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree.”
In many ways, Brown has already done that.
In April, he signed an executive order calling for a 40-percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 from 1990 levels, and the California Air Quality Board has already signaled that it will start implementing ways to cut petroleum demand.
“We know it is manageable and we are proceeding as he has directed,” Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the agency, told Bloomberg News.
Shires said Brown faces political risks in California that are different from what Obama and Congress face.
“You can do that on the federal level because the courts have let the president do that,” Shires said in a telephone interview. “But in California we have a very strong initiative mechanism and the voters will step in and restrain the governor’s activities. So he doesn’t quite have the flexibility that President Obama has in this area.”
As the legislative session came to an end last week, Sacramento lawmakers managed to pass a modified version of Senate Bill 350. While the 50-percent reduction in petroleum was missing, the Legislature increased California’s renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2030 and doubled energy efficiency in buildings by 2030.
After the 50-percent petroleum reduction was abandoned, Kathryn Phillips, director of the California chapter of the Sierra Club, accused oil companies of being “ruthless” and waging “a war on humanity.”
“They are determined to tell every lie they can and to scare people to death just so they can keep as much market share as possible,” Phillips told MSNBC.
“I think it was a combination of the oil interests pointing out that it was a dollars and sense issue” for lower- and middle-income Californians, said Shires, who specializes in state, regional, and local politics at Pepperdine.
Brown often talks about climate change in terms that border on the apocalyptic.” We are talking about extinction,” Brown said in July while at a conference in Vatican City. “We are talking about climate regimes that have not been seen for tens of millions of years. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way.”
At the same conference, Brown called those who think climate fears are overstated “troglodytes.”
“He absolutely believes in these things and absolutely believes this is the right thing to do,” Shires said. “He’s going to do everything he can to make it happen.
“Whether it goes as smoothly as he anticipates will come down to what people’s tolerance is for paying energy prices, not only in the terms of cost out of pocket, but in terms of employers leaving the state for other locations with lower costs of living and lower energy costs.”
Originally published in Watchdog.org.