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California's Prop. 23, backed by oil giants with a lot to lose, needs to go down in flames

It's up to voters to save the state from big oil interests.

September 05, 2010|Steve Lopez

I don't mean to disturb your holiday weekend just when you're trying to scrub that grease off the barbecue grill. But I thought now was a good time to remind you that in two months, you'll have an important choice to make about the air you breathe.

In November, you'll be asked whether California should continue on the path to becoming one of the world's environmental leaders. Or give up the good fight and pray that the global warming deniers are right.

I'm talking about Proposition 23, which comes to us courtesy of some of the finest corporate citizens America has to offer. We begin with Texas oil giants Valero and Tesoro, which both have refineries in California and are together sinking millions into the campaign to rewrite environmental standards here.

Then there's a company owned by oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, which has kicked $1 million into the Prop. 23 kitty. Those two cowboys have earned themselves a reputation for sponsoring campaigns that deny the need for renewable energy and also for backing groups that have trained "tea party" activists.

Still enjoying your holiday?

The goal of Prop. 23 is to derail the environmental plan we already have in place, one that was written without the help of Texans or tea party crackpots. It's called the Global Warming Solutions Act, drafted by state legislators and signed in 2006 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Scheduled to begin rolling out next year, it would require a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

But compliance would cost energy companies a few bucks. And so they came up with Prop. 23, which would delay implementation of California's landmark legislation until unemployment drops to 5.5%. I'm not a betting man, but I'm not sure that will happen before the polar ice caps melt and Seal Beach and Oxnard, among other coastal locales, are under water.

Now here's a shocker for you — Valero and Tesoro are among the state's top polluters. And cleaning up their act will cut into profits. So over the next eight weeks, they'll try to frighten you into believing that if California doesn't get off this tree-hugging kick, we'll all be out of work and out of gas.

In truth, yes, in the short term fuel costs may rise a bit, and vehicle costs as well, along with some energy bills. And Prop. 23 proponents say we're dreaming if we think one state can have an impact on global warming and pollution.

But foes of Prop. 23 argue that in doing the right thing for the environment, California can lead the way for the nation, as it has in the past with things like automobile fuel efficiency. And in this case, the state would also reap the benefits of a new economy built around green technology.

So yes, a lot is at stake, and those stakes were raised last week in Sacramento. On the last hoary night of a disastrous legislative session, a pair of bills that would have required California to continue weaning itself from highly polluting energy sources went down in flames, thanks in part to the muscle of Pacific Gas & Electric.

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), the author of that losing proposition, told me the loss "makes it all the more pressing that Proposition 23 is defeated." Simitian also happened to be a co-author of the 2006 warming solutions act that is now threatened by Prop. 23, and he said California has to step up, now, and reaffirm its image as the potential home of a new economy.

"When you send that signal to the market, the market responds by sending talent and dollars to California," said Simitian, who thinks there's a chance of a Silicon Valley-type explosion of jobs. "If we don't send that signal … then those dollars are going to go to some other state or some other country."

There is nothing evil or nefarious in what Valero and Tesoro are doing, said Fadel Gheit, a former oil industry executive who's now an energy analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. in New York.

"It's not personal and it's not emotional. It's business, and they're in the business of creating value for their shareholders," said Gheit. But, he added, "we are in bed with the worst people in the world because of our dependence on oil," and, as in the past, California can be the place where radical change begins.

We're already on the way, said V. John White of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. He said roughly 20 wind, solar and geothermal energy projects are under way in places where natural resources are great and unemployment is high.

"That's happening in Riverside County, San Bernardino, Kern and Imperial counties," White said.

Those are places with red-state politics, which sets up an interesting political conversation. What happens when tea party kooks try to beat back job prospects out there?

As my colleague George Skelton pointed out, the certifiably conservative George Shultz — a Reagan and Nixon official — is campaigning against Prop. 23, because he thinks that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is crucial for national security.

And Schwarzenegger, fishing a shallow stream for a legacy, is flexing what little muscle he has left to fight the "greedy" Texans, as he calls them.

"We will continue moving this state forward," he said in June, "with our comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, reduces our reliance on foreign oil and ensures the California we love will be the California we hand over to the next generation."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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