Reporting from Newark, Calif. — Even as both major gubernatorial candidates are opposing a November ballot proposal that would suspend California's global warming law, the landmark environmental measure remains a salient issue in the campaign, exposing key differences over how the next governor would shape energy policy.
Democrat Jerry Brown has fully embraced the 2006 law, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels over the next decade. And he is using the issue to drive a wedge between Republican rival Meg Whitman and the state's environmentally conscious voters.
Whitman is trying to walk a finer line. She dodged the issue for months before announcing Thursday that she opposes the November suspension measure, Proposition 23.
Trying to be "smart and green," the Republican nominee has proposed a one-year moratorium on the law, maintaining that it is a "job killer" in the state's sour economy and needs to be tweaked to protect businesses from incurring too many costs. At the same time, she has called herself an environmentalist on the campaign trail.
The issue is politically potent and could move voters in a race that is locked in a dead heat. According to a July poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, two-thirds of Californians favor the global warming law.
Its passage was recognized around the world as a seminal event. It was created as a platform for California to push other states and other countries to take an aggressive stance against global warming.
On Thursday, Brown used the country's largest privately owned roofing and solar company as a backdrop to rail against the suspension proposal and promote his renewable energy plan, which he says would create 500,000 jobs over the next decade in part by requiring the state to receive a third of its power from renewable sources.
"It's a small company," he said of PetersenDean Roofing and Solar Systems in the Bay Area city of Newark, "but it's thousands of small companies like this that build the economy."
He accused Whitman of engaging in "double-talk" on the global warming law, saying that a moratorium would freeze investment in the burgeoning green economy.
"Stop and start is exactly what people hate about government," said Brown, surrounded by solar panel displays outside the company's warehouse. "I think we have to have a clear mandate, a clear signal that California is open for business in renewable energy."
Whitman, who had no public events Thursday, issued a statement focused on the economic downturn.
"This is not an easy issue," the statement said. "While green jobs are an important and growing part of our state's economic future, we cannot forget the other 97% of jobs in key sectors like manufacturing, agriculture, transportation and energy. We compete for jobs with many other states, and our environmental policy must reflect that reality."
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, said Whitman's compromise position could resonate with independents, a voting group the candidates are splitting, according to a Field Poll released Thursday.
"She is trying to split the baby," Cain said.
As for Brown, Cain said the candidate's strident stance could help him woo back Democrats who intend to vote for his opponent. According to the Field Poll, 69% of Democrats support Brown, but 15% would cross party lines to back Whitman.
Even if voters reject a suspension of the global warming law, the governor has the authority to declare a financial emergency and put it on hold, as Whitman has vowed to do.
The governor also controls appointments to key agencies charged with implementing various antipollution programs under the law, including the creation of an ambitious system to cap the greenhouse gases that industries are allowed to emit but allow companies to trade emissions permits.
In addition, the next governor could also use his or her authority to roll back other programs under the umbrella of the law that have been in place for a while: energy efficiency standards, restrictions on vehicle emissions and requirements that power companies provide more energy from such renewable resources as the sun and wind.
Brown supporters, including the California League of Conservation Voters, say environmental programs will be watered down, and mandates on business to cut pollution will be delayed or abandoned, if the next governor appoints agency heads and board directors who are cozy with corporations anxious about the law's impact on their bottom line.
Whitman's backers said the Republican would streamline regulation while keeping California a leader in the environmental movement.
"She understands the nexus between the environment and the economy," said Virginia Chang Kiraly, president of the California chapter of Republicans for Environmental Protection. "One year, if you look at the whole time frame of the whole environmental movement, is a breather. It will help us implement [the law] more effectively and efficiently."
Times staff writer Evan Halper in Sacramento contributed to this report.