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Gov. Jerry Brown is facing tricky environmental and energy issues in California

As Gov. Jerry Brown lays out his first-term agenda Monday, he confronts a thorny array of environmental and energy issues, many with a potential to drive billions of dollars in state and private spending and have a major effect on public health.

Will Brown push forward with the nation’s toughest curbs on toxic chemicals in consumer products — proposed by the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then abruptly withdrawn in December?

Will he sign into law a bill vetoed by Schwarzenegger that would require California to draw a third of its electricity from solar and other renewable sources?

Will he face down the nation’s auto industry, which is revving up to fight a new round of limits on the greenhouse gas emissions of automobiles?

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Brown has taken office “at a critical moment in California’s history [when] the state’s long-term prosperity is vulnerable to climate change, energy insecurity, environmental threats to public health and a growing scarcity of key resources,” warned a UCLA Law School report earlier this month. “The governor has a tremendous opportunity to set our state on the right path.”

Expectations are high that Brown will be more eco-friendly than his predecessor, but so far Brown and his aides have been mum on his environmental and energy priorities. “We are focused appropriately on the governor’s budget proposal,” said Sandy Cooney, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency. “We’ll have much more to say moving forward.”

Key appointments, including the secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and the director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, have yet to be announced.

Environmentalists are lobbying for a wholesale turnover in the membership of commissions and agencies they view as having favored industry under Schwarzenegger, including those that govern forestry, fish and game, parks and recreation, and regional air pollution. They also want to push for increased monitoring and enforcement.

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“Jerry Brown is a more authentic and consistent environmentalist” than Schwarzenegger, said Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), co-chairman of the Legislature’s environmental caucus. “Arnold showed some leadership on high-profile issues like climate change, renewable energy and ocean protection, but … he saw laws like the California Environmental Quality Act and the Endangered Species Act as nuisances.”

Bill Magavern, California director of the Sierra Club, noted that one of Brown’s first decisions, to reappoint environmental lawyer Mary D. Nichols as chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, “indicates a certain amount of continuity” with the Schwarzenegger administration. Nichols, a Democrat, also served as chairwoman under Brown’s first administration three decades ago.

Environmentalists applauded Brown’s appointment of former Assemblyman John Laird, an opponent of offshore drilling and an advocate for parks funding, as secretary of Natural Resources. The naming of Karen Ross, a proponent of sustainable farming practices, as secretary of the Department of Food and Agriculture also drew kudos.

Business reaction so far has been muted. “We’ll wait to see how they do,” said Gino DiCaro, a spokesman for the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn. “We’re looking for policymakers who understand the needs of manufacturers and look for ways to provide relief.”

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Key issues on Brown’s environmental and energy agenda include:

GREEN CHEMISTRY

In 2008, California enacted groundbreaking laws to curb toxic chemicals in consumer products, one requiring the state to identify harmful substances and evaluate safer alternatives and another to set up a database on the chemicals’ effects.

Amid a battle between health and environmental groups and a coalition of chemical, automobile and other companies, the Schwarzenegger administration called a time-out, dropping the controversy over how to implement the laws into Brown’s lap.

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RENEWABLE ENERGY

California generates about 2% of its electricity from wind and less than 1% from solar.

Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation to require that a third of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2020, which businesses say will raise electricity rates.

Brown is expected to sign the bill. He also has pledged to shift away from Schwarzenegger’s emphasis on industrial-scale plants underway in the desert, saying he would streamline permits for the larger plants but rely on localized generation (panels on smaller, already degraded parcels of land, atop parking lots and warehouses, and on residential rooftops) for more than half the 20,000 new megawatts of renewable generation he proposes.

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Brown may back a European-style “feed-in tariff” that would pay residents and businesses a generous rate for power generated on their property and fed into the grid. Brown’s newly appointed members of the Public Utilities Commission, with strong ties to consumer groups, are likely to be receptive toward what Brown has touted as “carefully calibrated renewable power payments.”

WATER

Pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to supply Central Valley farms and Southern California cities has tilted the West Coast’s largest estuary into ecological free fall, devastating fish populations and triggering court-ordered endangered species protections.

An $11-billion bond package slated for the November 2012 ballot includes restoration money for the delta and millions of dollars for new dams and reservoirs. The Schwarzenegger administration also handed Brown a plan to build a $13-billion tunnel system under the delta, echoing an unsuccessful canal proposal that Brown backed during his first stay in the governor’s office.

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Voters may be reluctant to support a bond measure that would demand more than $600 million in annual debt service when education and other state services are being slashed. Some environmentalists instead favor stricter conservation measures.

A clue to Brown’s leanings may lie in his pick for deputy resources secretary overseeing delta issues: Gerald Meral, an official in Brown’s previous administration, who supported the peripheral canal around the delta that was rejected by voters.

GLOBAL WARMING

California has moved forward with the nation’s most sweeping regulation of planet-heating gases. It set standards to cut tailpipe emissions from automobiles through 2016 models, rules later adopted by the Obama administration. It is forcing refiners to cut the carbon content of transportation fuels. And it has designed a cap-and-trade program for industrial plants.

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Environmentalists want the Brown administration to speed up the timetable for industrial permits to be auctioned under the trading program rather than being given away for free as Schwarzenegger preferred.

Business groups want to delay the cap and trade program, which takes effect in 2012.

The most controversial issue this year is likely to be the new curbs on greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles for the 2017 to 2025 model years. California agreed to delay rule-making until September, when the Obama administration plans to release its own proposed standards. But the state could end up moving forward with stricter curbs if federal proposals are too weak, given California’s goal to cut its overall carbon footprint 80% by midcentury.

The effort, said the Air Resources Board’s Nichols, “involves highly sensitive coordination with the Obama administration, which is anxious to keep the auto industry and Congress on board with a national approach.”

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How Brown will resolve these issues is unclear. Sean Hecht, executive director of UCLA’s Environmental Law Center, says environmentalists must show Brown that their concerns “are worth spending political capital on. ... California’s economic future depends on its environmental health.”

margot.roosevelt@latimes.com


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