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SACRAMENTO : It’s Hard to Tell Where Some Firms Stand on Environmental Initiative

BRADLEY INMAN <i> is an Oakland writer specializing in California business issues</i>

Several leading industry groups have lined up to condemn the far-reaching “Big Green” environmental initiative on the November ballot. The California Chamber of Commerce, for one, says the initiative spells economic disaster.

But it’s getting hard to tell which California companies are squarely opposed to the measure and which are on the sidelines. Some are reluctant to admit any active association with the campaign against Big Green. In some cases, companies say they have no official position, even though public records show that they contributed to a committee formed last year to defeat the measure.

Officially dubbed the environmental protection act of 1990, the initiative calls for phasing out pesticides found to cause cancer or birth defects, strengthening food safety laws, reducing air pollutants, restricting new offshore oil production and curtailing timber cutting. A slew of environmental regulations will follow if it passes.

“So far, the public has only headlines and labels to respond to, which explains why there aren’t many companies that want to come out against clean air, clean water and safe food,” said Pat Mason, president of the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, an organization supported by industry.

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“They’re caught between a rock and a hard spot because they have concerns about what’s in the ballot language.”

Opponents say the measure would raise gasoline prices 25 to 50 cents per gallon, raise electricity costs more than 20% and reduce statewide employment by 1 million workers by the year 2000.

Chevron U.S.A. is among those that have been cautious in reacting to Big Green. “We have taken no position on it,” said George Marich, a Chevron spokesman.

According to campaign disclosure statements filed with the Secretary of State, however, the San Francisco-based oil company gave $5,000 to the California Coordinating Council, the political group formed to oppose the initiative.

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Marich insisted that the contribution was only to pay for “a preliminary look at the initiative and does not mean Chevron is committed to opposing it.”

Dow Chemical also has no official position on Big Green, but it put $15,000 into the California Coordinating Council. According to John Ulrich, Dow’s manager of public affairs, the CCC is considered by Dow to be a “study group” and not a campaign committee to oppose Big Green. “We are looking at its economic impact,” Ulrich said. The CCC has conducted polls to gauge voter reaction to the measure and has hired a consulting firm to estimate the economic fallout from the initiative, should it pass.

The report filed with the Secretary of State said the council was set up to “support or oppose state initiatives relating to California business issues.” Council spokesman Jack McDowall said it was established specifically to oppose Big Green. He works for the Burlingame consulting firm of Woodward & McDowell, which has been hired to run the campaign against the measure.

The company contributions are nominal compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Dow and Chevron pumped into the campaign to fight Proposition 65 in 1986--the last major environmental measure on the California ballot. Proposition 65 required companies to disclose the presence of toxics in their products and reduce ground-water contamination. California voters approved the measure by a 2-to-1 margin.

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Chevron was an outspoken critic of Proposition 65, and company representatives admit that the company is still reeling from its role in that campaign. Few of the dire predictions made by opponents of the measure came true.

“I don’t think we were as sophisticated about these measures in the past,” Marich said. “It explains why we are trying to think through our position more carefully this time.”

The company is well aware of the need to protect its image. At the company’s annual meeting two weeks ago, Chevron Vice Chairman James Sullivan told shareholders that Chevron is rated in public opinion polls as one of the most environmentally sensitive petroleum companies, and he described its efforts to cut hazardous waste disposal by 60%.

More squarely on the sidelines is Pacific Gas & Electric, which put off requests to contribute to the campaign against Big Green and has taken no stand on the measure.

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“We really don’t want to oppose an environmental initiative, despite our concern about the requirement to reduce carbon dioxide by 20% by the year 2000,” said Victor Furtado, manager of Environmental Services for PG&E.; The San Francisco-based utility burns natural gas in its electric power plants, generating carbon dioxide.

PG&E; is also haunted by the lessons of Proposition 65, which the company actively opposed.

“My gut feeling is that (Big Green), like Prop. 65, will pass, and that plays into our decision,” Furtado said. “Why should we risk bad publicity and spend a lot of money when you know it might go down?”

Despite hesitation by some large California companies, Big Green opponents insist that there is no shortage of business animosity toward the measure. The timber industry, pesticide companies and agricultural interests are expected to form the financial backbone of the “No” campaign.

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“No one wants to be labeled anti-environment, but for many of our members this goes much too far,” said Kirk West, president of the California Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the campaign against Big Green.

Leave it to former Los Angeles television personality and political candidate Bill Press to figure out a way to drag the environmental issue into the campaign for state insurance commissioner.

Considered the leading contender for the new insurance post, Press says, “these days everything is an environmental issue--including insurance.” An unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1988, the 50-year-old Democrat promises to investigate whether oil tankers and offshore oil rigs are adequately insured to cover the costs of an oil spill cleanup.

Press, who was an environmental adviser to former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., says if elected he also plans to issue guidelines for insurer’s investments in large real estate developments, such as one planned by Prudential Insurance Co. in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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Finally, “clean water and clean air means a healthier planet, healthier people and lower insurance policies,” Press says.

Other leading candidates for the insurance post include State Sen. John Garamendi (D-Stockton), Bay Area attorney Ray Bourhis, Board of Equalization member Conway Collis and Walter Zelman, former president of Common Cause. None has come forward with an environmental platform.


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