Battle Lines Drawn Over AB 32 As Oil Companies Qualify Ballot Measure

Refinery_pic_small.jpgPhoto: Thomas Hawk.

Though California Secretary of State Debra Bowen yesterday certified a November ballot measure asking voters to suspend AB 32, a landmark state law requiring a significant cut in greenhouse gas emissions, AB 32 supporters have been organizing for months and have formed a significant coalition to fight the initiative.

In a move usually associated with congressional Republicans, they’ve also honed their message to clarion simplicity: Support a clean energy future or support Big Oil.

Californians for Clean Energy Jobs, the coalition supporting AB 32, argues the paradigm is no longer about jobs versus the environment, but supporting an innovative economy that benefits the environment .

"It’s not a battle between tree huggers and business," said Steve Maviglio, the spokesperson for Californians for Clean Energy Jobs. Maviglio said he was impressed that over 350 supporters had already stepped up, including heavy political hitters like the Association of American Retired Persons (AARP), the American Lung Association, the California Teachers Association, the California League of Women’s Voters and the California Nurses Association.

"These are groups the American people trust and they don’t trust oil companies," he said.

The poison pill in the ballot measure, according to Maviglio, is the provision that would suspend AB32 until California’s unemployment rate falls below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters, something that
has only happened three times in the last 30 years. California’s jobless rate is currently at 12.3 percent.

While the bulk of support for the coalition comes from the clean energy sector, Maviglio said Virgin America, deeply reliant on traditional petroleum fuels, was a member because they wanted to be on the right side of the issue. He also noted that Chevron and the California Chamber of Commerce were staying out of the fight because of the significance of AB 32.

San Francisco Mayor Newsom clearly got the memo and stayed on message in an impassioned speech at a press
conference yesterday that also showed that he’s in full-stride in his campaign for Lt.

"This is an outrage. As a Californian, I’m offended that
these big oil
companies have come into our state and are trying to buy a roll-back to
an old dirtier and darker economy," he said. "This is a fundamental
question that we have to ask ourselves about what kind of state we are,
what kind of people we are, and what we want to represent to the rest of
this world."

Presser_Pope_Newsom.jpgSierra Club National Chair Carl Pope at yesterday’s press conference, flanked by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and other AB 32 supporters. Photo: Matthew Roth.

At the same press conference, Sierra Club Chair Carl Pope pointed to the two primary funders of the ballot initiative, Texas-based oil companies Valero and Tesoro, which he said contributed nearly 80 percent of the $3 million dollars to qualify the measure for the ballot.

"They don’t want you to know this suspends clean air laws, they don’t
want you to know this is another big oil bailout for polluters and they
don’t want you to know who’s behind this at all," said Pope, who noted Valero and Tesoro are two of California’s biggest polluters and personally stand to gain significantly if AB 32 goes away.

He noted that front groups for the oil companies, such as the California Jobs Initiative, couldn’t be pleased with the wording of the initiative as it will be written on the ballot because it so pointedly depicts the effort to repeal the pollution controls in AB 32.

"There’s one piece of really good news about this ballot measure," said Pope. "You don’t need to read the fine print."

The initiative "suspends air pollution control laws requiring major polluters to report and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming until unemployment drops below specified level for full year," reads the full text as it will appear on the ballot.

Many opponents of the measure see the action by the oil companies as a maneuver to outflank national carbon reduction standards, given California’s leadership on environmental standard from fuel efficiency to building regulations

"The fossil fuel companies are being cynical but probably pretty strategic in saying, ‘listen, if we can drive the stake through the heart of environmental policy in California, just imagine the chilling effect it’s going to have in the country,’" Wade Crowfoot of the Environmental Defense Fund told Streetsblog. "[Oil companies] are making a bet that they can actually stop the progress toward equaling the playing field for renewable energy."

Crowfoot and Mayor Newsom both highlighted the enormous investment in cleantech companies that has resulted from the passage of AB 32. California is host to 12,000 cleantech companies with over 500,000 employees and more of these companies are relocating their worldwide headquarters to California than any other state by an enormous margin, said Newsom. Since 2006, when AB 32 was passed, $9 billion has poured into California’s cleantech sector, $2.1 billion alone last year.

"Investment buys jobs," said Crowfoot. As to criticism that cleantech only represents a small portion of jobs in California, Crowfoot said: "So was the computer, so was the micro-processor, but are you going to defend the typewriter factory?"

Despite a wide majority of Californians telling pollsters they support AB 32, political adepts like Crowfoot and Maviglio clearly understand the power and reach of big money in politics. Though no one knows exactly how much the oil companies will spend on the campaign, estimates range from between $50-100 million.

If the oil companies harp enough on the jobs angle and the economy doesn’t improve much by November, AB 32 supporters are worried voters might be convinced by their argument.

"The facts are on our side, but the name of the game is being able to have the resources to beat back their arguments and be able to tell the truth," said Crowfoot. "Political advertising can greatly impact the election. If you have $80 million
spent by oil companies going up on TV saying this is a jobs killer, we
need to be there to counter the message."

Maviglio acknowledged the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was great PR to help them beat back the message by Valero and Tesoro, but he said, "In 90 percent of campaigns, whoever spends the most money wins."

Though he expected to be outspent significantly, Maviglio said they would rely on traditional political campaigning and intelligent messaging to get the facts to the public.

"It’s going to be a full-scale battle with every component of the campaign," he said.


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