By Paul Rogers
After eight years in which California had a partner in President Barack Obama in expanding renewable energy and electric vehicles, signing international deals and writing tougher pollution laws to the consternation of industry and Republicans, the election of Donald Trump now sets up the Golden State as a land in environmental exile.
Experts say it’s about to become a country within a country, moving sharply in the opposite direction of the White House and Congress on climate change and environmental policy, as California sets its own agenda with sympathetic states and countries.
“We will protect the precious rights of our people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time – devastating climate change,” Gov. Jerry Brown said following Trump’s stunning upset.
The president-elect’s views on climate change couldn’t be more different from Obama’s. Trump has called it “an expensive hoax.” He promises to pull out of the Paris agreement that Obama signed with 195 countries last December to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent in a decade. He has championed coal mining, and his advisers and potential cabinet secretaries include oil company presidents and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, all eager to boost oil and gas production on public lands and along coastlines.
In recent years, Brown and his predecessor, former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have signed dozens of major environmental laws. California set up a mandatory cap-and-trade system that has forced power plants, factories and refineries to pay to pollute. The state required 50 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2030. Silicon Valley companies like Tesla have hired thousands of workers.
California has also mandated the nation’s toughest smog limits on cars and the most far-reaching energy efficiency rules on everything from new office buildings to big-screen TV sets. Polls show broad public support for those measures.
Brown has even acted as a de facto head of state, signing agreements endorsed now by 136 other cities, states and countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. Those partners with California include France, Italy, Costa Rica, British Columbia, New York City and dozens of others. Together they have 832 million residents and produce a third of the world’s economy.
Trump will almost certainly target many regulations that Obama put in place by executive order, said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Bracewell & Giuliani, a Houston law firm that lobbies on behalf of oil refineries, electric utilities and other industries.
The new president will also probably kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drew up to require coal plants to dramatically clean up or shut down. He also is likely to rewrite or drop Obama’s rules requiring automobiles to double their gas mileage standards to a fleet average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. And rules limiting fracking for natural gas on public lands probably also will be waived, he said.
On Wednesday, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, issued a statement saying Trump’s victory shows that Americans do not support the Paris climate agreement.
Inhofe also said that Republicans will soon name a new justice to the Supreme Court to “decide the final fate” of Obama’s EPA rules limiting greenhouse gases from power plants.
Does that mean Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress will try to overturn California’s climate rules?
“Congress can do a lot of things, but I highly doubt this Congress, which has a heavy states-rights focus, will start meddling in the affairs of states on energy policy issues,” Maisano said. “If that’s what Californians are going to keep voting for, I don’t see why anybody would tell them to stop doing that.”
Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, agrees. On Friday, Nichols said she doesn’t expect Congress will try to pre-empt California’s state laws because it would require Congress to pass complex new national laws — on issues such as renewable energy or cap-and-trade programs — and impose a one-size-fits-all law for all states.
Instead, she said, California could well go back to where it was during the administration of President George W. Bush. When Bush took office in 2001, he abandoned the Kyoto climate treaty that the Clinton administration negotiated and loosened pollution rules on industry, saying they were too costly. California responded by passing Assembly Bill 32, its landmark cap-and-trade law, along with cleaner car standards and renewable energy mandates. Other states, including Washington, Oregon and New England states, copied many of those policies, she noted.
“This isn’t just a matter of state pride,” Nichols said. “We have an economy that is tied to the growth of renewable energy and clean technology. We are attracting investments at a record rate. It would be foolish from an economic standpoint to go backward.”
Billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, of San Francisco, a donor to environmental causes, said the world will look to California even more for leadership.
“This is a very dangerous policy that they say they are going to pursue,” he said of the Republicans’ plans. “California’s role becomes much more important. There’s no question about that.”
Other environmentalists are bracing for a new federal effort to expand oil drilling off California’s coast, similar to when President Ronald Reagan appointed James Watt as interior secretary in the 1980s. Watt then sought to drill off Big Sur and the San Mateo and Sonoma coasts.
Although national marine sanctuaries now stretch from Hearst Castle to Point Arena in Mendocino County, oil companies have wanted to drill for years off Humboldt, Orange County, Malibu and other areas, said Richard Charter, a veteran activist in Bodega Bay with the Ocean Foundation. The California Coastal Commission and coastal cities will file lawsuits to block drilling if the Trump administration tries to allow it, he added.
“We knew eventually the oil companies would come back,” Charter said. Former Sierra Club leader “David Brower said that all of our victories in the environmental movement are temporary and all of our losses are permanent. We are really in danger of some earth-shattering losses if we aren’t careful.”
Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the UC Berkeley School of Law, said the federal government could affect California industries by limiting or ending tax credits for electric vehicles, solar and wind power. A big infrastructure bill could boost pollution if most of the money goes to highways in suburban areas instead of urban centers and renewable energy projects, he said.
“California is the fifth largest economy in the world,” Elkind said. “That’s quite a powerful entity to be committed to these climate goals. I don’t think all is lost, but this election is a big setback for climate policy.”
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