L.A. mayor, Latino activists take on oil companies over Proposition 23

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Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Tuesday rebuked Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., which operate refineries in Wilmington, for bankrolling a measure that would effectively scuttle the state’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“Go home, Texas oil companies,” Villaraigosa urged at a news conference aimed at encouraging voters to oppose Proposition 23, a November ballot initiative to suspend California’s 2006 climate change law until the state’s unemployment rate drops.

“We won’t compromise our environmental and health standards so you can make more money,” he said.

The sharp tone was an early indication of the battle expected over the measure, which proponents say would save jobs and lower energy costs but that opponents say will choke California’s pioneering effort to reduce planet-warming pollutants and attract alternative-energy jobs.

Flanked by community activists from Latino neighborhoods, Villaraigosa accused San Antonio-based Valero and Tesoro of “dirty tricks,” adding that because of asthma from poor air quality, “More Californians will get sick if Prop. 23 passes.”

The No on 23 campaign released a four-page report, “Toxic Twins: Soiling the Southland,” detailing environmental violations and fines assessed against the two Wilmington refineries in recent years.

Valero spokesman Bill Day called the report “highly inaccurate,” saying that the climate law, AB 32, “regulates only greenhouse gas emissions associated with global warming, not smog or other environmental or health-threatening pollutants.”

He added that “California has some of the world’s strictest emissions standards, and our refineries meet or exceed those standards.”

The news conference in downtown’s Vista Hermosa Park, with a view of the smoggy skyline, underscored the effort by opponents of the initiative to rally low-income Californians who live in heavily polluted neighborhoods. Materials were released in Spanish. Latino activists from Wilmington and San Bernardino gave interviews to Spanish-language television stations.

A coalition of 60 Latino, African American and Asian groups, calling itself Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Proposition, issued a statement saying that Proposition 23 “will hurt low-income communities and people of color first and worst. ... We will lose against the Dirty Energy Proposition unless we mobilize voters of color and low-income voters.”

A poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California found that ethnic state residents were more likely than whites to be concerned about climate change and more likely to see air pollution as a problem. For instance, 60% of Latinos said the state is not doing enough to address global warming, as compared with 40% of non-Hispanic whites.

The Yes on 23 campaign also sees the ethnic vote as a battleground and issued a news release Tuesday calling the measure “an essential safety net for communities of color,” citing endorsements from the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Black Business Assn.

Also called the California Jobs Initiative, Proposition 23 would suspend the California law until unemployment in the state, now more than 12%, drops to 5.5% for four consecutive quarters — a level reached only three times in the last three decades.

If the initiative is defeated, California’s climate law would take effect in January with the first economy-wide curbs on greenhouse gases in the nation, including a reduction in the carbon intensity of gasoline,caps on cement plants and other factories, a trading system for emission permits and a mandate for utilities to boost electricity generated from solar and other renewable sources.

Scientists say climate change has already begun to affect California, with more rapidly melting snowpacks, drought and a rising sea level.

State officials acknowledge that greenhouse gases have no direct negative health effects but say that forcing industry to modernize equipment and switch to cleaner energy sources will reduce particulates and other pollutants.

“Prop 23. will strangle the green economy in its grave,” said Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for A Better Environment, based in Huntington Park.