Environment & Science

California lawmakers advance steeper goal to cut emissions

Evening traffic fills the 101 freeway near Hollywood in this June 2004 file photo. The state Assembly  on Tuesday approved a bill that would set a new goal to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
Evening traffic fills the 101 freeway near Hollywood in this June 2004 file photo. The state Assembly on Tuesday approved a bill that would set a new goal to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
David McNew/Getty Images

California lawmakers moved closer to extending the state's ambitious climate change law Tuesday after winning critical approval from business-minded Democratic lawmakers in the state Assembly with encouragement from the White House.

A majority of members in the state Assembly approved extending the state's landmark greenhouse gas emissions law, moving the proposal to the state Senate, which is expected to pass the measure before the Legislature wraps up next week.

"We need to make sure we are not throwing away the most incredible program we have in this country. Really, we are the leader," said Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

In 2006, California set a goal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, when the initial effort would end. SB32, approved on an initial 42-29 vote, would set a new goal to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. It is tied to the fate of another bill, AB197, to provide greater legislative oversight of the appointed Air Resources Board, which is responsible for executing the law.

Some lawmakers say the law would strengthen California's role as a leader for other states and nations to take action in combating climate change. Opponents say doubling down on emissions reductions could raise gas prices or hurt the state's economy.

"SB32 is an extension of a novelty that resulted in higher energy prices for all Californians without demonstrating cost effectiveness and combating climate change," Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, said.

Atkins rebutted those arguments, saying California's economy shows the effort to curb emissions has not been "the devastating thing people said it would be."

The expiring global warming law has hung in the balance as Brown and the Legislature approved a budget this year and negotiated Democratic priorities. The Brown administration and other Democrats lowered expectations the bill would find enough support earlier this month.

Jerry Abramson, deputy assistant to the president and White House director of intergovernmental affairs, called several members of the California Legislature this week urging them to support the bill, lawmakers said.

"He said our president views what California is doing as extremely important on the issue," said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova. "He expressed that this was viewed as a very important debate and decision in California affecting the issue not just in this country but an issue of global importance."

Cooley is one of 22 so-called "moderate Democrats" who opposed or refused to vote on the bill last September, when it proposed cutting emissions 80 percent by 2030. Of those, 16 Democrats plus one Republican voted for it Tuesday. Five of the newly supportive Democrats tacked on their support after the initial vote made clear the bill would pass.

Extending California's greenhouse-gas reduction plan is critical to the legacy of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who has put climate change at the forefront of his priorities and touted the state's moves at the Vatican, at a climate summit in Paris and at the Democratic National Convention this summer.

"California's charting a clear path on climate beyond 2020," Brown said in a statement after the vote, adding, "I look forward to signing this bill."

Since 2006, the state has implemented high fuel-blend standards for cleaner-burning gas and enacted a cap-and-trade system that requires polluters to buy emissions credits. That program has sputtered in recent months amid uncertainty about the future of the program. Lawmakers disagree on whether those efforts have been effective.

The nation's single largest political donor in 2014, billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer looked on from the side of the chamber as the Assembly considered SB32 Tuesday. Steyer has given millions of dollars to Democratic candidates and causes in California, including a $500,000 independent expenditure in May supporting Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, in his race against a Democratic challenger with a voting record less favorable of environmental issues.

"You're dancing to the flute of a rich, hedge-fund billionaire who is running for governor," Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Plumas Lake, said to his Democratic colleagues Tuesday. "He is proposing policies that are against your districts, that put your people out of work. Stand up for your constituents."