IT’S COMPLICATED: I opened my mailbox last week to discover a political mail bomb ticking away. It wanted to blow up Das Williams, our state assemblymember. The timing seemed premature. Williams won’t be on the ballot again until next November. The brochure — printed on expensive, glossy card stock paper — came courtesy of a group new to me, the California Driver’s Alliance. It featured a color photo of the aforementioned Williams, slumping off to the side and looking blithely unconcerned beneath a headline blaring, “His vote hurts many … and helps one.” All this was superimposed over a hazy black-and-white, shot-from-behind photo showing a heroically beleaguered soccer mom and four kids pushing their minivan down the road. Williams, the Driver’s Alliance explained, supports a bill that gives unnamed members of an obscure state agency powers to “levy surcharges” on minivans like the one pictured, thus harming “families with small children.” But that was nothing; the Driver’s Alliance charged Williams was also out to get farmers, workers, working families, air travelers, and commuters by supporting a bill that would increase the price of gas. In fact, it would mandate nothing less than gas rationing by the State of California. The only group Williams is, in fact, positively looking out for, the Alliance charged, are “wealthy Tesla owners.”
The Driver’s Alliance, I quickly discovered, was a front group concocted by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). That’s pronounced “Wis-pa.” And when you have as much money and as many lobbyists as WSPA does, that’s as loud as you ever have to speak. The oil industry has been doing a whole lot of heavy “wispa-ing” in Sacramento the past couple of months, trying to put the terminal kibosh on SB 350, a landmark environmental bill written by State Senator Kevin de León that would mandate California cut gas consumption by 50 percent, increase the amount of electricity provided by renewable energy sources to 50 percent, and increase the energy efficiency standards of new buildings to 50 percent. Conspicuously missing from the bill — despite multiple assertions to the contrary by the oil industry — is any language having to do with gas rationing. Or minivan surcharges. Mostly, it’s a road map with a lot of urgent lofty goals. How those goals get met is left to the divine genius of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to suss out. For those leery of CARB, that’s a huge problem.
To call this bill “the whole ball of wax” and “all the marbles” would be a vast understatement. It’s the unified field theory of environmental grooviness. It’s the 800-pound gorilla and the elephant under every rug. Backing the bill to the hilt are Governor Jerry Brown, de León, the Pope, all the bishops not under indictment for sexual abuse, and actress Halle Berry. And Williams, course. On the other side is the oil industry. The oil industry doesn’t need friends or allies. If Brown, famous for almost becoming a priest, manages to get God on his side, SB 350 might have a chance.
Failing that, Brown needs to persuade a significant number of moderate, business-minded Democrats — known in the parlance of Sacramento as “Mods” — to sign on. Many represent districts less affluent than Santa Barbara and worry SB 350 might push energy prices higher than their constituents can handle. Either that or they’re on the oil industry payroll. Or maybe both.
To convince the “Mods” to vote for SB 350, Brown, de León, and Williams — de Leon’s “floor jockey” in the Assembly — were willing to go to such lengths that local environmentalists with the Community Environmental Council (CEC) had sent out action alerts late last week expressing their opposition. They felt Williams had tossed them and the highly wonkified eco agenda they care most about under the oncoming wheels of political expediency. Ultimately, both sides managed to work things out, and CEC — focused almost exclusively on climate change and greenhouse-gas emissions for the past 10 years — is now back on board with SB 350. That there was such suspense is, as they say, noteworthy.
For CEC, the Holy Grail has long been clean energy production and more specifically something called “Community Choice.” Translated, this means cities and counties are freed from the monopolistic straitjacket imposed by mega utilities like PG&E and SoCal Edison and are allowed to buy and sell much greener and cheaper electricity on their own to their residents than utility companies either can or will on their own. Only three places now do it, and their track record is mixed. One relies way too much on renewable energy that exists only on paper. Another delivers the goods, providing significantly greener and cheaper juice to its customers. Either way, it’s a radical change, and the utilities hate it. It threatens the long-term reliability of their revenue streams. Last year, Williams supported a bill — backed by the union representing utility company workers — that would all but kill Community Choice. CEC freaked out. The bill would never make it to the governor’s desk, and Williams would mend fences with CEC by actively lobbying City Hall and the county supervisors to spend half a million on a feasibility study needed for the South Coast to pursue a Community Choice option. But to win “Mod” support during the showdown over SB 350, Senator de León proposed amendments that would make Community Choice significantly more expensive and more cumbersome for local governments to pursue. It would be Williams who introduced that language in the Assembly. CEC freaked. So did others of their ilk. “Come to Jesus” talks ensued through tightly clenched teeth. The offending amendments got softened. Community Choice is still going under the bus, but at least helmets will be provided. Whether that’s enough to get any “Mods” on board for SB 350 remains to be seen. But for the time being, that’s how sausage gets made in Sacramento. Or not.
Editor’s Note: By the time the paper hit the streets, SB 350, in an act of political expediency, was gutted of its key provision to halve the amount of gasoline burning into California’s skies by 2030. Increasing renewable energy production and efficiency remain in the bill.