Oil industry, environmentalists in ad war over bill to cut gasoline use

When Californians check their mailboxes or flip on their radios these days, they might be forgiven for thinking an election is around the corner.

It's not, of course. But with just a week left for lawmakers to finish their work this year, a heated ad war is being fought over a bill to cut state gasoline consumption in half.

The measure passed the state Senate but is the subject of a tough battle in the Assembly, where business-friendly Democrats hold more sway. If it succeeds, it will shift the state away from fossil fuels.

Oil companies want to kill the bill and have blanketed the state with warnings — one radio spot sounds like a public service alert — that the government wants to track residents' driving, ration their gas and charge them for owning gas-guzzling trucks or minivans.

One flier depicts a family, complete with diapered toddler, pushing an out-of-gas minivan down the road. "At least your family can get halfway home," it says.

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Supporters of the legislation, which would also boost California's energy efficiency and renewable energy, call such ads scare tactics and say there are no plans to ration gas.

"The idea that your car would be stranded at the side of the road is really beyond comprehension," said Susan Frank, director of the California Business Alliance for a Clean Economy.

Groups such as hers have countered with their own campaign, touting the health benefits of cutting pollution and using social media to pressure lawmakers to "stand up to oil companies" and "protect the air we breathe."

Beth Miller, a spokeswoman for the oil companies, said the industry's ads simply show what could happen if lawmakers pass the proposal and empower the California Air Resources Board to decide how to meet the new gas target by 2030, as the legislation would require.

"It's entirely within the realm of possibility that these things could happen," Miller said. "This is a poor piece of public policy that doesn't contain really key, important details that will impact the lives of Californians."

The industry drove that point home last month with a full-page ad in the Sacramento Bee. Framed like a homework assignment for the bill's author, Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), it asked how his legislation, SB 350, would affect the price of gasoline and left space for his answer.

The next week, the bill's supporters fired back, filling in the blanks in their own full-page ad.

"Please redo," they wrote. "SB 350 reduces pollution, conserves energy, saves money.... SB 350 does not limit gasoline use."

Oil companies won't say how much they are spending, but they are burning enough cash to run television spots around the state that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One starts with a woman at a gas station saying, "If you can afford a Tesla, this message won't really matter to you."

Then she says the "California Gas Restriction Act" — the bill's title is actually the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act — is about "making it harder for regular people to drive to work and drive home each day."

The bill's backers won't disclose their advertising budget, either, but they insist they are underdogs in the fight.

"This is a David and Goliath situation," said Gil Duran, a spokesman for NextGen Climate, an environmental advocacy group founded by San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer. "The amount of money being spent in support of the bill pales in comparison to the massive amounts the oil companies are spending against the public interest."

Stopping the legislation requires help from a handful of Democrats — Republicans are already opposed — and some of the oil industry's ads are aimed at specific Assembly members, such as Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) and Cheryl Brown (D-Rialto).

Paid for by the California Driver's Alliance, which was created by the Western States Petroleum Assn., the ads ask people to sign petitions to "help" lawmakers say no.

"They've done the vote count," said Steve Chadima at Advanced Energy Economy, an association of clean energy companies. "They know who the people are on the fence."

The ads don't sit well with some lawmakers.

"I'm not particularly happy about being named," Cooper said. "I can speak for myself."

Cooper said he wants to support environmental goals but questions their efficacy and their affordability for poor members of his district.

"I support the concept, but I want it to be realistic," he said.

Environmental advocates have also singled out lawmakers. One image posted on Twitter by the Courage Campaign, a liberal group, juxtaposes photos of Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside) and Pope Francis, who has called for global action against climate change.

"The Pope gets it, but does Jose Medina?" the ad asks.

NextGen Climate also sent fliers to his district, including a prepaid card for residents to fill out and mail to Medina's office, urging him to support the bill.

Advertising has been supplemented with activism, organized by the Sierra Club, which has sent volunteers door to door in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire. Some visited neighbors of Assemblyman Henry Perea (D-Fresno), a leading skeptic of the legislation.

Asked about the effort, Perea said, "It's just one more data point for me to consider as I think about how I'm going to cast my vote."

chris.megerian@latimes.com

Twitter: @chrismegerian

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