Oil Industry Contributions Blamed for Standoff Over Climate Change Bill in California

Democrats cannot agree on a sweeping climate change bill in California that would cut gaz-guzzling by 50 percent and boost renewable energy production by 2030.
September 9, 2015, 9:50pm
Photo by Daniel Reinhardt/EPA

A sweeping climate change bill in the California assembly that would reduce petroleum consumption by 50 percent in the gas-guzzling state is being held up by a group of Democrats unwilling to pledge their votes — and other Democrats and environmental activists accuse the holdouts of being bought by fossil fuel industry.

The bill, proposed by Senate leader Kevin de Leon, would mandate the reduction in gas consumption as well other measures, including an increase in renewable energy and fuel-efficient cars, but would leave it up to the California Air Resources Board to determine how exactly to accomplish those goals. De Leon said that he hopes the Democratic holdouts will shake off the influence of the oil industry and pass the bill before a Friday legislative deadline.

"I have every confidence that, once Big Oil's smokescreen clears, these Members will see that lives are at stake and choose the long-term physical and economic health of their constituents over the short-term profits of polluters. It is my hope they will side with working families and secure a clean energy future for our state and thereby the country," de León said in an email.

The Latino advocacy group Presente published a "Wanted" poster last week with photos of five of the Assembly members who have not yet come out in support of the bill, accusing them of betraying their constituents and the environment due to lucrative contributions from petroleum companies.

"Would these politicians be willing to confront the petroleum industry and fight for Latino families?" the ad said. "Help us make sure these elected politicians stay responsible to the community."

Arturo Carmona, executive director of the group, said the holdouts represent environmentally fragile, low-income communities that suffer from pollution and would greatly benefit from the climate change bill.

"There's no question that California is very close to making history in combatting the use of petroleum in a way that no other state, no other country in the world really has ever done, but we've found ourselves with an unprecedented level of opposition. Clearly the petroleum industry is fighting for its life, and we're on the other hand fighting for the future of our state and communities and globe to protect the environment for future generations. So we're also in fight for our lives," Carmona told VICE News today.

The officials targeted by the group are Roger Hernandez, Henry Perea, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, Ian Calderon, and Mike A. Gipson.

Related: Law to Keep Fracking Outta Compton Challenged by Oil Industry

Carmona said the petroleum industry has "flooded the coffers" of Democratic assembly members to win their opposition to the bill. He's documented $260,000 in contributions from the oil and gas industry to the assembly members shown in the ad, though records also show industry contributions to Democrats who are in favor of the bill, as well as Republicans.

"We've seen the millions of dollars the petroleum industry has used to instill fear in Democratic politicians is working," Carmona said. "Many of them are actually politicians of color that represent black and Latino communities that are poor, that are highly polluted, and it's shocking and embarrassing that these politicians are still on the fence about these vital pieces of information. It just goes to show the petroleum industry is exerting major influence over many Democratic politicians."

VICE News reached out to the Democratic Assembly members who had not yet come out in support of the bill to ask about their hesitation and the petroleum industry's influence, but most declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown's office said that her hesitation in supporting the bill was that she did not want to give the California Air Resources Board any more power than it already has.

Assemblyman Ian Calderon did respond to the accusations, saying that it was predictable that others were trying to use the claim of oil donations to bully him into supporting the bill, though he really was not sure it was best for his constituents.

"I've said from day one that I want to be supportive of this for reasons of global warming, sea level rise, the impact the environment has on low-income communities, the communities I represent," he said. "The only problem is when it comes to a lot of environmental legislation, generally, and in the case of this bill, it's rushed, and I don't think time is taken to really understand the impact on these communities."

**Related: **Scientists Say Climate Change Is Making California's Drought Even Worse

Calderon said he feared a mandatory decrease in petroleum use by 50 percent would cause the price of gas, utilities, groceries, and energy efficient vehicles to soar, making life unaffordable for those in his community. The legislature is also looking at raising a host of other taxes this legislative session, he said, and he fears that it is too much for his constituents to bear at once.

Like Brown, Calderon also criticized the bill for giving power to implement the changes to the unelected California Air Resources Board, which he says wouldn't have the same accountability to the public as elected leaders would. Calderon said that he and 25 other members of the Assembly who are unsure of the bill are still negotiating amendments with the Governor's office.

"My concern is not an oil company, they're doing just fine,  and it's not a major utility company, they're doing just fine," he said. "But we're supposed to be a moral compass, and I just want my constituents to feel like I am representing them."

The petroleum industry, for its part, has been vocally opposed to the bill. Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said that their main qualm is the bill's lack of clear, concrete ideas for how the 50 percent reduction could be achieved. In a state so heavily dependent on gas and vehicles — she said California ranks third in the world for petroleum consumption after the United States and China — it would be "infeasible" to reduce consumption by 50 percent by 2030 with no clear ideas now of how to get it done. Reheis-Boyd said the industry would prefer to see a cap-and-trade program instituted in the state.

The deadline for the assembly to vote on the bill is Friday.

Watch the VICE News documentary Flooding Fields in California's Drought here:

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @CurryColleen