Prop. 23 battle marks new era in environmental politics

Proposition 23, the oil industry sponsored initiative to suspend California’s greenhouse gas law, was touted early on by environmentalists as a “David vs. Goliath” battle. “Its our slingshot vs. their oily club,” said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for opponents.

But in the end, Proposition 23 failed by a stunning 61% to 39%, giving heart to national environmental leaders and signaling the advent of new players in eco-politics: high-tech entrepreneurs, mainly based in Silicon Valley, who see clean energy as an economic investment.

“It is the largest public referendum in history on climate and clean energy policy,” said Fred Krupp, president of the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund. “There has never been anything this big. It is going to send a signal to other parts of the country and beyond.”

The independent Texas-based refiners, Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., which launched the initiative along with the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn. and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn, were outspent 3 to 1 as $31 million poured in from venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, Intel’s Gordon Moore, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Google’s Sergey Brin, along with other wealthy California philanthropists and national conservation groups.


That campaign chest paid for TV spots that framed the debate as Texas vs. California, even though Valero and Tesoro operate refineries in Wilmington and Benicia.

Equally important were the 3,200 volunteers, 2.8 million phone calls, 3.4 million pieces of mail, 379,676 on-campus contacts with college students, and a computerized outreach program that identified and contacted 481,000 voters and showered voters with get-out-the vote calls and text messages in the last three days. Political observers say it was the broadest and most sophisticated field operation ever mounted over an environmental issue.

Well-defined constituencies were targeted. Latinos were wooed by actor Edward James Olmos, union leader Dolores Huerta and Spanish-speaking activists at their doors. CREDO Mobile, a San Francisco phone company known for endorsing liberal causes, recruited its subscribers to work phone banks and picket Valero gas stations. Robo-calls from Sally Bingham, a San Francisco Episcopal minister, went out to Protestant women older than 55.

The California League of Conservation Voters identified green-leaning but infrequent voters. The Sierra Club got 84,000 onto conference calls. The American Lung Assn. rallied 60 hospitals and health groups to contact their employees and members. And a score of unions worked on the ground.

Unlike the national arena, where the GOP is closely allied with the oil and coal industry in fighting greenhouse-gas regulation, California environmentalists benefited from bipartisan support. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sees the 2006 climate law as his signature achievement, attacked “the dirty oil hearts” of Proposition 23 backers. George P. Shultz, secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, served as co-chair of the No on 26 campaign.

Shultz made the case to fellow Republicans and business leaders that dependence on oil is a national security issue because of terrorism and the economic risks from price spikes. “What do we do with this victory?” he asked rhetorically in a news conference Wednesday. “We need to wake up our fellow Republicans.”

But Proposition 23 advocate Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Assn., said California’s climate law mandates “will result in the relocation of jobs and businesses from California to other states and other countries, along with the relocation of carbon emissions produced by those businesses…. Moving carbon from one location to another will not bring about any reduction in greenhouse gases.”