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Activists say gov. is green, but cautious

Schwarzenegger signed 19 key environmental bills this year. But his vetoes leave some observers disappointed with his record.

October 22, 2007|Margot Roosevelt | Times Staff Writer

On a Sunday evening this month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quietly vetoed what environmentalists had deemed to be one of the most important global warming bills to reach his desk this year.

The legislation, opposed by oil companies, would have required cleaner fuels for trucks and cars as part of the state's ambitious attempt to reduce greenhouse gases.

On the same day, Oct. 14, the governor also deep-sixed three bills that would have set energy-efficient building standards and another that would have required landlords to offer recycling services to tenants.

Nationally and internationally, Schwarzenegger is known for championing a bold 2006 law that aims to reduce California's emission of carbon dioxide and other planet-heating gases to 1990 levels over the next 13 years.

But as it comes time to implement strategies for meeting those targets, his critics say, the governor is proceeding cautiously.

On the one hand, he signed two innovative energy bills this month: the nation's first efficiency law for light bulbs, and the country's largest incentive program for solar-powered water heaters.

The governor also got kudos from environmental groups for signing 19 of their 28 high-priority bills, including partial restrictions on lead bullets to protect condors, and a ban on several chemicals, known as phthalates, in baby and toddler toys.

Both were issues with mass appeal -- the giant condors are a symbol of Golden State wildlife, and the toy legislation came at a time of increasing alarm over contaminated imports from China.

"He really showed some guts," said Rico Mastrodonato, spokesman for the California League of Conservation Voters. "He was under tremendous pressure from the National Rifle Assn. and the chemical industry."

But overall, the legislative year was lackluster, many environmentalists say.

"Crucial legislation to lower human exposure to toxic heavy metals and mercury and reduce global warming emissions ended up on the cutting room floor," Mastrodonato said.

Environmentalists were disappointed with the veto of a bill that would have prohibited the sale in California after 2010 of electronic devices that contain lead, mercury and other heavy metals, modeled after a European Union directive.

Health advocates are alarmed that hazardous contaminants from discarded computers and cellphones are seeping into landfills and water supplies. But computer manufacturers opposed the bill because it did not exempt replacement parts.

In addition to what the governor vetoed, three important bills died in the legislature before reaching Schwarzenegger's desk. One would have cut air pollution around ports; another would have required utilities to provide more renewable energy; the third would have discouraged housing sprawl by encouraging transit-friendly communities.

And environmentalists say that even as the governor has supported some environmental improvements, he has been reluctant to embrace high-impact climate measures opposed by industry.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear sees no contradiction. "The governor has always maintained that you can protect the environment and grow the economy at the same time," he said. Schwarzenegger got high marks from the California Chamber of Commerce after vetoing all 12 bills on its list of so-called job killers, including the low-carbon fuels standard and the green building legislation.

"Just because the governor vetoes an environmental bill doesn't mean he's retreated from his very robust environmental principles," said Timothy Coyle, a spokesman for the California Building Industries Assn. "The state's widening housing supply and affordability gap . . . gets regularly overlooked in discussions about environmental issues."

In Schwarzenegger's efforts to balance business and environmental interests, he has honed a reputation as a maverick. This month, he defied the Bush administration by signing a bill to require industries in California to report the release of toxic chemicals over 500 pounds a year. In December, the federal Environmental Protection Agency had raised the minimum to 2,000 pounds.

An investigation by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit, found that the EPA rollback would eliminate reporting of almost 600,000 pounds of chemicals a year from 274 industrial facilities in 30 counties in California.

The governor also responded to a well-organized grass-roots movement in the highly polluted San Joaquin Valley -- brushing off powerful agricultural and oil industry opposition -- when he signed legislation to expand the valley's air quality board, adding a scientist and a physician.

In the case of low-carbon fuels, which the governor had originally promoted in an executive order, legislators favored a statutory mandate in part to prevent industry meddling in the regulatory process. The bill would have set a minimum 10% carbon reduction, while ensuring that other air pollutants don't increase.

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