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Halos and pitchforks

Whether he sees the light or leans to the dark side, the governor faces difficult choices on fuel legislation.

September 28, 2007

The green angel over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's left shoulder and the red, cigar-puffing devil over his right have seldom found themselves as deeply at odds as they must be over AB 118, a bill from Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) that awaits the governor's signature.

The bill would raise the annual vehicle smog-abatement fee by $8 and the registration fee by $3. The resulting $130 million a year would be spent on programs meant to achieve one of Schwarzenegger's key environmental goals: cleaning up automotive fuels so they emit less greenhouse gases. Yet to some extent, Schwarzenegger owes his political success to his stance against high vehicle fees. He won the 2003 recall election with a campaign that derided Gov. Gray Davis' $4-billion "car tax" increase. Schwarzenegger's first act as governor was to roll back vehicle fees to their previous level.

This is probably an agonizing choice for the governor, but it shouldn't be. In truth, AB 118 isn't a very good bill.

Some of the money it generates would be used to compensate motorists who scrap high-polluting vehicles, which is a worthy plan. But guidelines on how the rest of it would be spent are vague; the California Energy Commission and the Air Resources Board would dole it out to programs that encourage low-carbon fuels, such as research on new technologies or the purchase of state vehicles that run on biofuel. The problem is that the state has a history of spectacularly boneheaded decisions on alternative fuels that have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars, and there's no reason to believe that bureaucrats are getting any smarter.

For example, in the early 1980s, the state tried to promote methanol by buying a fleet of vehicles that would run on the alternative fuel, even though there weren't any pumps to distribute it. The Schwarzenegger administration has repeated the mistake by buying more than 1,000 "flex-fuel" vehicles that run on either gasoline or the new biofuel du jour, ethanol. These vehicles guzzle more gas than the ones they replaced, and to date they haven't burned a drop of high-grade ethanol, because, once again, there is no ethanol fueling infrastructure. Meanwhile, it's mystifying why anyone would think state officials would be better at picking marketplace winners for research money than venture capitalists, who are already investing hundreds of millions of dollars in alternative-fuel companies.

There is a better approach to meeting the goal Schwarzenegger set at the beginning of the year with his low-carbon fuel standard order, which demanded that automotive fuels in California emit 10% less carbon dioxide by 2020. Senate Bill 210 from Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) would assure that fuel refiners and importers don't do more environmental harm than good as they set out to meet the goal. Corn-based ethanol, for example, contributes to higher food prices, uses up scarce water resources and worsens the pollution of waterways with fertilizers and herbicides. In addition, some alternative fuels might reduce carbon but increase emissions of other harmful pollutants, such as ozone. Kehoe's bill calls for continuous study of these effects and prevents harmful fuels from being used to meet the low-carbon mandate.

Schwarzenegger should listen to his angel and sign SB 210. As for AB 118 . . . that one could go to the devil.

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