Fight Builds to Stop the Oil Industry's Dangerous Assault on Climate Protection in CA Election

by Faiz Shakir, Benjamin Armbruster, George Zornick, Zaid Jilani, Alex Seitz-Wald, and Tanya Somanader

As temperatures reached a record-breaking 113 degrees in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday -- it was so hot, a National Weather Service thermometer stopped working -- the fight for California's climate future is also heating up. Come election day, California voters are in danger of undoing "one of the most progressive pieces of environmental legislation ever enacted," thanks to a ballot measure pushed by handful of big out-of-state oil companies to kill California's landmark global warming law. Passed by bipartisan majorities and with strong support from businesses and environmentalists alike, California's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, commonly known as AB 32, will guide the state's emissions back down to 1990 levels by 2020, resulting in hundreds of fewer premature deaths each year. Since it passed, the law has catalyzed billions of dollars in private sector investment in clean energy in the state, helping to create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, as the Los Angeles Times noted, California has already "begun to feel the effects [of global warming], with rising sea levels, the disruption of habitats for plants and animals, and diminishing mountain snowpacks that are critical to the state's water supply." However, Proposition 23 -- placed on the ballot and promoted almost exclusively by three big out-of-state oil companies -- would essentially kill this hugely successful piece of legislation. In an attempt to confuse voters, the referendum says it will merely "suspend" the law until California's unemployment rate drops to the unrealistically low level of 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. The state's current unemployment rate is 12.2 percent, and has dropped below 5.5 percent only three times since 1970, so the initiative's passage would effectively kill the law. Moreover, suspending the law would actually hamper economic growth, according to economists, further jeopardizing the law's eventual implementation. Recent polling offers mixed forecasts of Prop. 23's prospects, but the data suggests that voters are unclear about what the measure will actually do, thanks to its deceptive wording. Once respondents were read a short explanation of the measure, the numbers shifted with a majority disproving of Prop. 23, suggesting that voters need to be better educated.

YES MEANS NO: The climate law is largely popular in California, with 67 percent of the residents supporting it. But a handful of out-of-state oil companies, interested in profits above all else, have exploited California's elections laws, which allow almost any organization with sufficient resources to place a referendum on the ballot to hijack the political process. Two huge Texas oil companies, Valero and Tesoro, have led the charge against the landmark climate law, along with Koch Industries, the giant oil conglomerate owned by right-wing mega-funders Charles and David Koch. Koch recently donated $1 million dollars to the effort and has been supporting front groups involved in the campaign. As of earlier this month, the Yes on 23 campaign has raised $8 million -- 97 percent of which comes from oil, and 89 percent of which comes from out of state. Valero, Tesoro, and Koch alone are responsible for 80 percent of total contributions to the Yes on 23 campaign. A recent study by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland found that "Valero and Tesoro have repeatedly violated pollution laws in California by releasing chemicals into the air." The study found that both corporations have numerous outstanding violations with state regulators, and are attempting to settle them, instead of paying them in full. As the New York Times editorialized, "The Kochs and their allies are disastrously wrong about the science," and are promoting Prop. 23 merely "because they worry about damage to the bottom line." Meanwhile, the Yes on 23 campaign has turned to tobacco lobbyists for help, the same ones who engineered Philip Morris' fight against efforts to tax cigarettes and stop childhood as well as indoor smoking. The groups supporting Prop. 23 has disguised it as a jobs bill, dubbing it the "California Jobs Initiative" -- despite the fact that repealing the law would actually destroy existing green jobs in California, whose numbers are growing 10 times faster than the statewide average. The studies used to push the Yes on 23 campaign's phony economic claims have been widely discredited, with California's non-partisan Legislative Analysis Office calling one "essentially useless." Unfortunately, the state's GOP candidates for governor and Senate have both endorsed this flawed argument. Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman dubbed parts of the climate law "job killing," but has tried to hedge. While saying she will vote "no" on Prop. 23, she wants to delay implementation of AB 32 until the supposedly pernicious parts can be fixed. For her part, GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina said the law is "undoubtedly a job killer" -- this, despite having once been a supporter of cap-and-trade legislation. Fiorina even attended a high-dollar fundraiser last week that included Koch Industries PAC.

FIGHTING BACK: Ironically, the company Whitman founded, eBay, has been one of the most outspoken supporters of California's climate law, with the company's vice president saying, "The goals of AB32 -- job creation, innovation, and business opportunity -- are at the core of the way we run our business at eBay." Indeed, a wide coalition of businesses, environmentalists, and social justice advocates have begun to fight back. Over the past two weeks, the No on 23 campaign has collected more than $1.8 million in contributions, while the Yes campaign has taken in only $6,500. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed the climate legislation into law and regards it as a "key part of his legacy," recently tore into the Yes on 23 campaign in a speech, audio of which was obtained by MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. "Oil companies like Valero and Tesoro and Frontier and Koch Industries are blatantly trying to manipulate the will of the people and the public good," Schwarzenegger said. "Does anyone really believe that these companies, out of the goodness of their black oil hearts, are spending millions and millions of dollars to protect jobs?" In July, over 100 economists signed a letter in support of the state's climate law, saying it will "stimulate innovation and efficiency," "help the state become a technological leader in the global marketplace," "create new business opportunities and more jobs," and "provide immediate benefits to the health and welfare of residents by reducing local pollutants." On Monday, leaders unveiled Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Prop, a coalition of more than 80 Latino, African American, and Asian groups have come together to fight Prop. 23. An August study from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found, "the people who bear the biggest health burdens from these facilities are disproportionately people of color: three of the four refineries these companies operate in California are sited in low-income areas with large populations of people of color." Polling data also indicates that minorities may end up being the "deciding factor" at the polls.

BEYOND CALIFORNIA: The outcome of the Prop. 23 vote holds major significance not just for Californians, but for the entire country, and the world. California is the eighth largest economy in the world and contributes 1.5 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, meaning the dismantling of its global warming law will have serious ripple effects across the globe. And as the Center for American Progress' Araceli Ruano and Sean Pool wrote, California's climate law is a critical "model for federal action," and "gives us concrete evidence that a price for carbon pollution can effectively create jobs by spurring new markets for energy efficiency and clean energy technologies." Other states have followed California's lead as well. Since the climate law passed in 2006, nine states have enacted comprehensive climate change legislation, while eight more have established greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Three major regional climate initiatives are underway as well. Meanwhile, as Pool notes, "California has been a leader in clean energy and energy efficiency for decades. Over the past 35 years California's model energy efficiency policies have saved consumers over $56 billion, creating 1.5 million full-time jobs." In 2007 alone, the state was responsible for  over 1,400 clean-tech patents -- roughly a fifth of the nation's total. All this innovation and critical experience will be greatly jeopardized, if not destroyed, if Prop. 23 passes. After a  major setback nationally with the Senate failing to pass comprehensive climate legislation, California offers the best hope today to combat global warming in the U.S. But with the momentum on their side, oil companies are hoping to kill the clean energy movement for good with Prop. 23.

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