November 27, 2006 - From the November, 2006 issue

Coalition for Clean Air Singlemindedly Navigates California's Legislative Process to Reduce Pollution

Tackling California's signature environmental threat, the Coalition for Clean Air lobbies for all manner of pollution controls in regions across the state, and this year it paid particular attention to the L.A. area with its promotion of Sen. Alan Lowenthal's container fees for environmental mitigation in the ports. In this MIR interview, conducted a week before the November election, CCA Executive Director Tim Carmichael discusses the group's ongoing efforts and analyzes the environmental community's legislative priorities.


Tim Carmichael

We are conducting this interview several days before the November election. With that noted, when you look at the California November election ballot, what strikes you as critical?

Among the initiatives, the Coalition for Clean Air has taken positions on Prop 87, which is the clean fuels, clean energy initiative, which would put a fee on petroleum mined in the state and generate about $4 billion. We see that proposition as a step in the right direction to advance our clean air agenda and also the future of the state relative to energy and transportation. Prop 87 is not going to solve all of our problems. But when we are talking about shifting away from petroleum dependency, which is in every aspect of our lives, $4 billion while an important step, is still not going to be enough.

The Coalition for Clean Air also strongly support Prop 84, for water and natural resources. Unfortunately some people have concerns because we've had bonds of this nature in the last couple of cycles, but the fact is that we still need to protect open space, protect our waterways, and ensure drinking water safety. Prop 90, on the other hand, is highly problematic. I hope that it doesn't pass, though I understand people's concerns with government overreaching. But the way that this initiative is constructed, planning and good development wouldn't happen because of the potential for abuse by greedy individuals and companies.

What is your position on the infrastructure bond package?

On transportation, I think that there is still a lot of concern among the environmental community, about the potential for that bond money to be misspent and cause environmental problems in the pursuit of trying to solve mobility congestion. I know that we need to invest billions of dollars on our transportation system. But it is not clear to me that this bond is the right way for us to be spending those dollars.

Why do the Coalition for Clean Air and other reputable environmental organizations rarely, if ever, support infrastructure bills that deal with mobility and congestion?

You're right; we haven't done that, and I think it is because it is a monumental undertaking. No individual environmental organization in the state has dedicated resources to focus on that. Collectively, we have focused on other efforts.

If the environmental community has $40 million to advocate for Prop 87, why is there a reluctance to press for environmentally sound infrastructure bonds?

I think you are blurring two different issues. One is what the environmental community has and hasn't done and has the potential to do, specifically on the amount of money for Prop 87. I, and I think it is true of my colleagues as well, did not fathom that one individual would contribute on the order of $40 million on that initiative. And I can certainly highlight examples of how that money could be spent in a productive way. People were talking about $5 million, $10 million being put into that initiative, and those were big numbers six months ago. That's an individual or a few individuals; that's not an organization or organizations coming together and saying, "we're going to come together and go out and fundraise ‘x' amount of dollars to change the California environment or the system in ‘x' way."

I think one of the things that we are just starting to get a handle on is the potential for us to work with some of these individuals that have deep pockets to get them to fund not only advocacy efforts but also research and development of whole alternative industries.

The Legislature has collaborated with the governor to pass landmark environmental bills like AB 32. Why then was it necessary to sidestep the Legislature and go to the initiative process with Propositions 84 and 87? Are the Legislature and governor incapable of responding to the state's environmental challenges? Is direct democracy the only alternative?

Two things. One-and I know this wasn't the focus of your question, but I want to highlight it-there are very mixed views on how much collaboration there was with the governor on AB 32. One camp believes that he was on board from the get-go. Others believe that he was dragged kicking and screaming-not him personally necessarily, but his administration. I just want to comment on that and set that aside.

On Prop 87 and this point about how much money is being spent and whether the initiative is the right way to go-remember that the focus of that initiative is clean fuels and clean energy. So who are the most potent lobbies in the Legislature on that issue? It's the oil industry and, to some extent, the utilities. The oil issue is arguably the most potent force in the California Legislature today. Anything that has to do with alternative fuels or reducing our dependency on petroleum runs into hurdles, if not brick walls, because of their influence with both members of the Legislature and with the governor.

Are you saying that the disciples of Jefferson, Adams, Washington, and Madison, who believe that representative government is the proper way to make law, are outdated and that initiatives like Prop 87 are now the preferred way to make state environmental policy?

No. I'm not saying that. But there is some truth in what you said in that there are areas where one or more interest groups have undue influence in the Capitol. In those areas we have been forced to turn to alternatives like initiatives to advance an agenda that was stymied in the Legislature. That does not mean that the Legislature and the government system is flawed or impotent throughout. Progress is made on a number of environmental issues each year. But, in some areas one or more industries or polluters-and it's not just polluters, there are other areas-have an undue influence with representatives.

Are you suggesting that the oil industry's lobby is more influential than the environmental lobby within California's Legislature, even though we have Democratic majorities in both houses and Democrats leading state agencies?

Absolutely.

State leaders believe just the opposite. Are you surprised?

I think they are not being genuine if that is what they are saying.

We are able to stop terrible things from happening when we muster our collective forces. We are not able to make enough good things happen that run counter to the business interests of the oil industry in California. That is a fact.

Because the Democratic majorities are more obligated to oil than to the environmental community?

It's not that simple. Many fear the oil lobby. The story advanced by the oil industry-and this is part of the flaw in the way we view our economic system today-puts this fear out there that if we move away from or restrict petroleum, then we are going to screw up the economy. This idea that any change from the status quo will be harmful is ridiculous. Most every revolution in technology-that has happened in the past or that you can envision for the future-encounters such fears. Locking in a resource or system and saying that we have to continue using it or the economy will be destroyed is ridiculous. And yet, that very argument resonates with many politicians who fear a backlash if gas prices go too high or if some large operator decides not to operate in the state because they think environmental regulations or some other cost of doing business is prohibitive.

In the October MIR, CalEPA Secretary Linda Adams, a former Gray Davis staffer, and a Democrat now working for the Governor, asserts that the passage of AB 32 and other measures by this governor and Legislature this term have been globally significant. Is she overstating the case?

I think AB 32 has significant potential, but it has yet to be realized. A lot of it will be realized in regulatory hearings over the next few years. I know that various business coalitions are already working on their strategy to stymie that effort and stop it from significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That said, it is an important step and it demonstrates California's leadership on globally significant issues.

Are you suggesting that the oil industry didn't try to stop AB 32, or is it that the oil lobby is not the behemoth that you described in your earlier answers?

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I think they did try to stop it. I think that they were effective in scaling it back from what it could have been. We put out a lot of good proposals and that is one of a handful that got through. They can't stop everything.

Is there no common ground in the battle between business interests and other environment groups like the Clean Air Coalition? Do all environmental issues need to be painted in partisan colors?

That question requires some background. The oil industry is mostly represented in California politics by a trade association called the Western States Petroleum Association. The problem with trade associations is that they are often held back by the lowest common denominator. You can highlight British Petroleum, Shell, and even Chevron/Texaco, which are repackaging themselves as energy companies, not just oil companies. They are doing that with an eye towards developing, marketing, and selling alternative fuels and energy services beyond petroleum. But many other oil companies are not yet moving in that direction and they only see one path: fully consume their oil resource, maximize the profits around that resource, and then when it is close to gone, let's talk about where we go next.

Couldn't the same analysis be true for most associations-even for environmental groups? Don't most environmental organizations need to rely on consensus?

Yes and no. In some areas we are organized, but in many areas we are not yet that well organized. And it's easier for us to find common ground with companies that are willing to explore beyond their historical comfort zone.

But doesn't your answer equally apply to both oil and environment groups?

Some organizations are more willing to explore creative solutions than others. That is true of any group. I focused on the oil industry because of its dominance.

Should the infrastructure bonds go down to defeat, do you anticipate the Clean Air Coalition or other environmental groups coming forward with a plan for investing in multi-modal ground transportation through infrastructure bonds?

I think it is something that we will have to work on. There is not much debate that better infrastructure is necessary. The debate is mostly about what type of infrastructure we should invest in and what type of controls and environmental protections we should place on how that infrastructure is physically constructed.

We put forward an alternative proposal a couple of years ago that was picked up by Senator Lowenthal as SB 760/SB 927, and we had a very good run with it. It had to do with a sub-set of the overall state infrastructure, but a significant sub-set: the ports and goods movement system. Our belief is that the most efficient and fair way to fund the projected tripling of goods movement over the next 15–20 years was to put a mitigation fee on containers. We got a lot of support from across the political system for that. We still believe that the fee is a better funding mechanism than a bond that puts the debt off on future generations.

Do you think that SB 760/927 would have funded all the necessary improvements despite the fact that Senator Lowenthal doesn't?

No. I didn't say that. I was highlighting the mechanism. It would have generated roughly $500 million a year to be split three ways: security, air quality, and infrastructure improvements. All of those areas could use additional funding, but it was never intended to be full funding. It was intending to be significant funding coming from the significant users of the system.

Is there a need for a bond?

I'm not sure that there is a need for a bond on top of that. I think they do augment each other, but there are enough non-bond mechanisms to generate the necessary funding for ports and goods movement, freeways, and public transportation.

The ports of L.A. and Long Beach recently released their Clean Air Action Plan. How do you feel about that plan?

We have worked publicly and privately with the ports and the cities involved. We are hopeful that the ports will make the most of their greatest leverage point, which is their leases with the companies that operate at the ports to encourage better environmental practices, cleaner technologies, and less pollution.

Big question marks remain as to funding, which is not currently part of the Clean Air Action Plan, and what is to be done with the 10–20,000 independent truckers that have very little clout but are an integral part of the system while operating old, highly-polluting equipment for the most part. There isn't a good proposal yet to address that segment of the problem.

Related to the ports' plan is the recent South Coast Air Quality Management District plan for further reductions in regional pollution. How did CCA contribute to that plan, and what are its prospects?

Coalition for Clean Air has been involved in the development of the AQMD plan going back to the 1980s. However, we have not been very involved in this round. That said, it is early in this round, and there is a lot of work still to be done by the agency itself in developing materials and strategy as well as by various interest groups that are weighing in on the viability of that plan.

As much as some businesses feel that they have felt the pinch of clean air laws over the last 10–20 years, the reality is that the people working on these issues feel like most of what we have done has been low-hanging fruit, and it's only going to get tougher to meet our air goals because of our current dependence on equipment and fuels that are highly polluting and the slow rate at which those are turning over. Not meeting them is simply unacceptable, and I think that polls show that that is a strong majority position for Californians.

In September LAEDC CEO Bill Allen told MIR, "Over the last 25 years, L.A. County has added nearly 2.7 million people, but only a half million jobs. The city of L.A., which represents 40 percent of the population of the county has added 1 million of those people but none of those jobs." Does the Coalition for Clean Air have a positions on population growth or economic growth and how to balance the two with the environment?

We don't have a position on population growth specifically, but there are a couple of points I can make. One is that whenever you look at population and environmental impact, you have to look at the impacts associated with that population. One million people in a developing country are not going to have the same impact on the environment as one million people in a developed country that depends on fossil fuels and consumes them at an outrageous rate.

There is, of course, a connection between population, jobs, housing, and transportation. One of the best moves that has happened in the last two years in the Legislature was the combination of the housing and transportation committees so that people would make the connection that is essential for effective planning for the future of our state. You can't do one without considering the other. We need to do more to develop smartly-have multi-use buildings that have retail, commercial, and residential, and place those buildings near public transportation that works.

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