California's new climate change laws almost didn't happen this year. Here's how lawmakers pulled it off.
By Chris Megerian and Melanie Mason
Sep 02, 2016 | 1:40 PM
For Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, global warming conjured images of stricken polar bears floating away on melting ice sheets, a problem with little relevance to a politician from California’s bone-dry Inland Empire.
But while attending the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris last year, he heard a new conversation about helping the world’s poor, polluted communities — places that sounded a lot like his own district.
“I don’t consider myself a climate change activist,” the Democrat said. “I consider myself an advocate for my community.”
But there was a hitch when he returned to Sacramento to push a new propsal. The territory had already been staked out by Sen. Fran Pavley, a Los Angeles County Democrat from the kind of wealthy, white, coastal area that has dominated environmental conversations in the state. While Garcia was still in his first term, Pavley was finishing her last and she was determined to pass her own measure to set a more ambitious target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Garcia and Pavley could have gone their separate ways. Instead, they formed an unlikely alliance that changed the course of California’s renowned policies on climate change and cemented them for years to come.
The new legislation would preserve the state’s international reputation for fighting global warming while grounding it in local concerns over jobs and health, broadening the agenda’s political support and providing a potential road map for future environmental battles.
“That’s exactly the discussion we needed to have,” Pavley said. “How can we make the benefits of reducing carbon pollution relevant to everyone?”
It was an approach spearheaded by a scrappy group of staff and advocates who waged an insurgent campaign that faced opposition from oil companies, hesitance from Democratic leaders and volatile divisions among environmentalists. Just one year after heavy industry opposition defeated or watered down high-profile proposals, Gov. Jerry Brown is poised to sign measures to spur more investments in clean technologies and cut pollution from refineries and other facilities.
In the end, the legislative odd couple of Garcia and Pavley became what Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) called “the partnership of the future. We’re bridging that gap within the environmental community.”
While Paris was Garcia’s first international climate conference, Pavley had attended several.
A longtime environmental champion, Pavley authored the 2002 law for reducing vehicle emissions that became a national standard. Another landmark measure in 2006, Assembly Bill 32, set a 2020 target for reducing emissions to 1990 levels and became the legal foundation for many of the state’s climate programs. For her last year in office, Pavley wanted to cross something off her “bucket list” — setting a new target for slashing emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
She asked Jake Levine, a Los Angeles native working for an energy company in Washington, D.C., to join her in Sacramento to help pass the legislation. He jumped at the chance, assuming Democratic-dominated California would continue embracing the kind of policies he had watched stall in Washington’s partisan gridlock.
But Levine discovered a different political reality when he arrived.
Pavley’s legislation, Senate Bill 32, had been in limbo since its rejection the previous year, and oil companies were viewed as a powerful foe after torpedoing a proposal to reduce gasoline use for transportation.
Most of all, Levine was puzzled by what he called the “heated and emotional rift” within the environmental community, a divide that reflected the complexity of California’s climate politics.
The state has more solar power and electric cars than any other, and prestigious environmental groups have used the state’s policies as an example that could spark the much broader,international action needed to slow global warming.
We learned from the old fights. We don't need to relive them.
— Parin Shah, senior strategist at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network
At the same time, some areas of California suffer the worst air quality in the country. Poor neighborhoods dotted by refineries and carved by freeways have felt left behind, and community organizations known as environmental justice groups argue that state regulators should focus more on local concerns.
They also highlighted a racial divide — white people were often leading the push for new regulations while blacks and Latinos were more likely to suffer the consequences of pollution.
“There wasn’t enough communication and trust” between different environmental groups, Levine said.
He partnered with Carlos Gonzalez, the policy director for Garcia, and an informal group of advocates. Jena Price, a lobbyist from the California League of Conservation Voters, contributed her political instincts for the Capitol; Alex Jackson, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, provided the legal perspective from a more traditional environmentalist group; and Parin Shah, a senior strategist at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, spoke for low-income communities harmed by pollution.
Their conversations at an office near the Capitol were a microcosm of larger debates that have divided Democrats and environmentalists. How much unilateral power should regulators have? Where should the state focus its efforts? What’s the best way to win over skeptics?
“We learned from the old fights,” Shah said. “We don't need to relive them.”
The group’s dialogue helped produce AB 197, which Garcia introduced as a companion to Pavley’s proposal for a new emissions target. It was a two-pronged measure intended to assuage lawmakers’ longstanding concerns about the California Air Resources Board, the leading agency for state climate policy.
First, the legislation offered them more control over regulators by creating a new oversight committee and limiting how long board members could serve before needing another stamp of approval from lawmakers. Second, it would require the board to consider new factors when implementing regulations, such as prioritizing emissions cuts at refineries and other polluters that harm residents’ health.
Concerns about jobs and health resonate in Garcia’s district, which stretches from Joshua Tree National Park to the Mexican border. One out of every five residents lives below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate of 24% is four times California’s overall figure. In one county he represents, children visit emergency rooms due to asthma at twice the statewide rate.
But Garcia’s legislation, with its push for more regulator oversight, was on a collision course with Gov. Jerry Brown, who has chafed at attempts to rein in his administration’s authority.
In addition, Garcia’s legislation did not address cap-and-trade, the centerpiece of California’s climate policy. The program requires companies to buy permits in order to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, providing a financial incentive to clean up their operations. It’s also controversial because some activists believe the program doesn’t do enough to curtail pollution in their neighborhoods.
Brown, the state's best-known champion for fighting climate change, was focused on safeguarding cap-and-trade from a lawsuit over whether it amounts to an unconstitutional tax. Bulletproofing the program — and the revenue it generates for projects such as the bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco — would require a two-thirds vote, the threshold needed for approving taxes and fees.
That was a steeper challenge than the majority vote needed for Garcia and Pavley’s legislation, and the governor’s office was negotiating directly with oil companies in hopes of laying the political groundwork for a deal.
The talks rankled environmentalists and worried biofuel companies that rely on state incentives that the oil industry has opposed. Meanwhile, administration officials were agitated that Garcia and his allies were pushing forward with their own legislation while their negotiations were ongoing.
Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor was prepared to battle the oil companies if necessary but wanted the chance to work on “a potential peace treaty.”
“It’s important to put down your weapons and negotiate in good faith,” Westrup said.
There were also doubts from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), new to his post as leader of the lower house’s large and splintered Democratic caucus. He feared that the legislation wouldn’t pass and suggested Garcia hold off until next year.
“I wasn't sure he was listening,” Rendon recalled. “He nodded his head and kept pushing forward.”
When the last month of the legislative session began, Brown, De León and Rendon held a series of tense meetings to determine the fate of climate legislation. Afterward, the governor’s office and Rendon issued statements suggesting it could wait.
But De León was silent. He was the most eager to push forward, and had even chatted with President Obama’s advisor Valerie Jarrett during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in hopes of getting the White House on board.
With rumors churning all day, Garcia’s office had prepared a statement saying it would hold its climate legislation until next year. But Gonzalez took De León’s silence as a sign of hope, and he didn’t hit send.
“We felt that there was a chance,” Gonzalez said.
Despite widespread belief that climate legislation was dying, a multifaceted lobbying operation was whirring to life.
Supporters believed they were roughly 10 votes short of what they needed in the Assembly, and they knew passage would require making climate change relevant to a new generation of lawmakers who had opposed the previous year’s effort. Because of term limits, there had been an almost complete turnover in the chamber since 2006, when the state set its original emissions target. Pavley was one of the only ones left.
During last year’s battle over a failed proposal to reduce oil use, both sides took a scorched-earth approach that left emotions raw. Environmentalists accused lawmakers of being in oil companies’ pockets, while the industry warned that Californians wouldn’t be allowed to gas up their minivans if the legislation passed.
This year, supporters had a more nuanced campaign.
Health groups lobbied Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), an emergency room doctor, about the benefits of reducing air pollution. Executives at Bay Area businesses such as SunPower and Salesforce pitched Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell).
We felt there was a chance.
— Carlos Gonzalez, policy director for Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella)
Clean energy companies also played a more central role in the lobbying. One trade group distributed fact sheets listing the number of jobs that could be gained in each district, and another flew in an out-of-state investor to dangle the possibility of millions of dollars in new projects.
The effort hinged on picking off a few business-aligned Democrats who had united to block previous climate proposals, and advocates carefully crafted their appeals to lawmakers once written off by some environmentalists as oil industry stooges.
Last year, Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside) said the people pushing climate policies were “outside environmentalists saying what’s best for my district.” But this year he connected with a business building a massive new biofuel facility in his district and decided that supporting climate legislation was “the right thing to do for my area.”
Garcia and his allies pressed their colleagues in Capitol hallways, lounges and elevators, and they eventually secured enough support to convince Brown and Rendon that they were within striking distance.
“The timing was right and the politics aligned,” Westrup said, and the governor worked with top lawmakers for the final push.
The effort wasn’t without hiccups. Dan Reeves, De León’s chief of staff, couldn’t make one meeting when he realized his daughter hadn’t plugged in his electric car the night before and he didn’t have enough battery power to make it to the Capitol.
Although Reeves was stuck at a charging station, the momentum continued. On the night before the Assembly vote, Rendon called a handful of lawmakers to seal the deal, telling them simply: “It’s important to me.”
The oil industry was caught flat-footed as supporters rushed the legislation to a vote. Just weeks after it appeared dead, Pavley’s bill was approved by the Assembly. The lobbying had paid off, and the 42-29 vote included a dozen yes votes from lawmakers who had abstained or opposed her proposal the previous year. Garcia’s bill passed the following day.
Shortly after the vote, Pavley and Garcia hugged outside the Assembly chamber. His eyes were wet as congratulatory text messages streamed in from his colleagues.
Although there will be more battles over the future of the cap-and-trade program, Pavley said she was ready to hand the baton to Garcia, a decade after passing her first legislation for setting emissions targets.
“He’ll be in the same place I am in 10 years,” she said. “It’s a relay race.”