Top lawmakers launch a clean energy ‘gold rush’ with sweeping new climate change proposals 

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2015

SACRAMENTO — State legislative leaders for California yesterday pitched an ambitious climate change agenda as a job-creating vehicle.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D) unveiled an ambitious package of bills that would extend the state’s greenhouse gas targets to midcentury, expand the state’s renewable electricity target to 50 percent, cut petroleum use by 50 percent, require all new and existing commercial buildings to be twice as energy efficient and require state employee pension funds to divest from coal.

As part of his emphasis on job creation, De León said he wants to boost economically depressed regions of the state, like the Central Valley and Kern County.

“Number one, we want to create real jobs for Californians,” he said at a press conference on the Capitol lawn, flanked by labor unions and employees of renewable energy companies, including SolarCity, Sunpower, Recurrent Energy and BYD Motors. “Two, obviously, we want to clean up the environment.”

Sen. Ben Hueso (D), who announced a bill to form a commission to oversee investments in job creation, called clean energy “the California gold rush of the modern era.”

“In California, there’s gold in the wind,” he said. “There’s gold in the sunlight; there is gold in the water; there’s gold in geothermal activity.” Some of California’s proposals may also spill over to other states because the state has been both a national and international leader in climate change mitigation efforts.

The proposals are the starting gun for negotiations among progressive Democrats who control the state Senate, Gov. Jerry Brown (D), other lawmakers, utilities, oil companies, environmental groups, labor unions, various sectors of the renewables industry and a host of other participants.

As a result, the initial bills are sure to be accompanied by a flurry of lobbying as the details are fleshed out. De León had a meeting with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. CEO Tony Earley immediately after the announcement.

“Let the dialogue begin,” he said. “We’re looking forward to having a very spirited, hard, open, cooperative, respectful dialogue with folks who are either going to be neutral, agnostic or in opposition to the measure, but we’re looking forward to that engagement.”

Geographic fault lines

Brown, who originally proposed the targets in his inaugural address last month, put out a statement in support of the legislative proposals. “The Pro Tem and I share a strong commitment to dealing with climate change in an aggressive and imaginative way,” he said. “I look forward to working with the legislature to hammer out the details.”

The centerpiece of de León’s plan is a bill by Sen. Fran Pavley (D), the author of the original 2006 law that set a greenhouse gas emissions target of 1990 levels by 2020 — a target that the state is on track to meet.

Pavley’s new bill, S.B. 32, would set a target of 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Another bill, by de León and Sen. Mark Leno (D), would address electricity, buildings and petroleum use. Another de León bill would require the state’s massive public pension funds to divest from coal, while the one by Hueso would form a commission to invest money in creating jobs tied to clean energy (Greenwire, Feb. 10).

So far, the de León-Leno bill, S.B. 350, envisions a 50 percent renewable portfolio standard virtually identical in structure to the existing program. Targets would ramp up from 33 percent by 2020 to 40 percent by 2025, 45 percent by 2028 and 50 percent by the end of 2030.

Reactions from the rest of the Legislature have been mixed. Assembly member Henry Perea (D), a moderate Democrat from the Central Valley who has sought to delay the state’s climate policies in past sessions, expressed concerns about the cost to consumers. “I think we’re going to have to take a step back and see what these goals mean out in the real world,” he said in an interview. “Are they practical? What are they going to cost?”

Sen. Andy Vidak (R), also from the Central Valley, put out a more strongly worded statement.

“Democrat leadership’s attempt to artificially create so-called ‘green jobs’ will kill thousands of blue- and white-collar jobs in the Central Valley, as well as mountain and inland regions,” he said. “Instead of cherry-picking job creation in favored industries benefiting wealthy areas, we should be growing jobs in impoverished communities that continue to suffer from disgracefully high unemployment rates.”

The petroleum industry has also come out vehemently against de León’s proposals, particularly the section of S.B. 350 that would reduce motor vehicles’ petroleum use by 50 percent by 2030. The bill currently places that responsibility with the California Air Resources Board, and assigns the efficiency targets to the California Energy Commission.

An environmentalist made the point that California voters appear to be largely in favor of the state’s existing climate policies. “The political will to do this is much greater than when they passed A.B. 32,” the 2006 law that set the original target of 1990 emissions levels by 2020, said Adrienne Alvord, California and Western states director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that three-quarters of Californians viewed climate change as a threat to the economy. Forty-three percent said they thought the state’s existing climate policies would create jobs (ClimateWire, Dec. 2, 2014).

Job creation vs. cost control

A few of the potential legislative battles were previewed at yesterday’s event.

Labor union officials said they would push to keep renewable energy projects in-state, rather than allow utilities to buy carbon offsets or renewable energy credits to represent emissions reductions.

“The utility industry wants to use offsets and renewable energy credits. Ratepayers shouldn’t be purchasing rainforests in Brazil or buying empty pieces of paper,” said Marvin Kropke, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Local 11 chapter in Los Angeles. “Ratepayer funds should be used to create hundreds of thousands of good jobs in California that clean California’s air.”

De León stuck up for the utilities.

“I give the IOUs [investor-owned utilities] a tremendous amount of credit,” he said. “The IOUs are good corporate citizens.”

When asked if large hydropower would be allowed to contribute to the RPS target, de León alluded to the utilities’ lobbying efforts. The state’s major investor-owned and municipal utilities have been discussing a “clean energy standard” as an alternative to the RPS, but outside observers have said their proposal is still nascent and needs to be fleshed out.

“Folks talk about flexibility, and there’s some language floating out there, language that we have not seen as of yet,” de León said. “I know today we’ll be having a meeting with PG&E to begin the discussions.”

“Bottom line is that we want to create jobs for Californians,” he continued. “We want to create real jobs that are tangible, not for folks that live in Texas or Arizona or Nevada or wind farms in Kansas. We want to create jobs for Californians.”

De León said he didn’t have an estimate yet of how many jobs the bills would create.

“We’re not going to go out with a real hard number yet,” he said. “We’ll get you a number sooner rather than later.”

Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D), chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, said he would introduce a bill focusing on adaptation to climate change, including preparing for sea-level rise. Wieckowski represents Silicon Valley, which is low-lying and particularly at risk of inundation (ClimateWire, Dec. 20, 2012).

“We need to be more resilient,” he said.