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California Lawmakers Are Stonewalling Clean Energy Legislation

CLIMATE POLITICS - As energy- and climate-related legislation passes through committees in the California legislature, some lawmakers are refusing to vote on bills critical to the state’s transition from fossil fuels.

The 10 bills examined by Capital & Main would significantly expand California’s transmission infrastructure to deliver more electricity to homes and buildings, help the state bring more zero-carbon energy sources online and build more charging infrastructure for battery electric vehicles. These large-scale changes are essential to meeting the state’s emissions goals, which have been calibrated to limit global warming and stave off severe climate change. 

Combined, the 23 lawmakers who failed to approve legislation have taken more than $1.58 million from the oil and gas industry and its employees throughout their careers.

Most are Republicans, but several are Democrats from oil- and gas-producing regions of the state. Those same areas, such as the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles’ South Bay, have some of the dirtiest air in the country, for which fossil fuel companies bear significantresponsibility. In addition to making people sick, their wells and refineries warm the planet.

Lawmakers’ obstructionism didn’t stop the legislation from advancing in the committees. But their mostly passive resistance could have an impact if the bills go to a floor vote.

Kevin Slagle, the vice president of strategic communications for the Western States Petroleum Association, said his trade association had not taken a position on any of the bills examined by Capital & Main, but last year WSPA produced a public relations campaigncriticizing the state’s electrification goals.

It’s possible that lawmakers’ abstentions serve more as a wink and a nod to industry, says Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.

Abstaining from voting is “no different than a no vote, and sends a signal to the industry that you’re not going to be heard and counted among those who want electrification of the grid, who want to support battery electric vehicles, that is a signal to petroleum makers that you’re with them,” Court said.
 

Opposing New Transmission Lines

SB 887 would require the California Public Utilities Commission to work with the state’s Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s flow of electricity, to more rapidly approve transmission projects for delivering energy from offshore wind and other sources, particularly to urban areas, by 2035, and expand their planning timeline.

The process must start quickly because these massive projects have such a long lead time, said Sen. Josh Becker (D-San Mateo County), the bill’s author.

“Without efforts to expand [transmission] capacity, this effort will fail to meet our climate goals,” Becker said at a hearing of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, of which he’s a member.

In response, Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno County) expressed concern that the bill could “interfere or challenge or create barriers for our traditional extraction and usage of fossil fuels.”

“I think everyone understands, especially as we’ve seen what’s happened with Ukraine, California is moving dramatically in the diversification realm, because you can’t go green overnight, and we need to make sure we have a component of our energy needs satisfied by some of the more traditional fossil fuel extractions,” said Borgeas, who has taken at least $20,000 from the industry throughout his career and is leaving office this year.

Becker assured Borgeas that the bill wouldn’t do this, though it clearly identifies reducing the presence of polluting gas plants as a goal. Thirteen committee members approved the bill, while one, Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), abstained. Grove personally has significant fossil fuel financial interests, and has taken $259,875 from the industry. On April 18, SB 887 was placed on suspense file by the Senate Appropriations Committee, meaning that the committee can stall or advance it based on budgetary considerations.   

For another bill, favored by climate activists because it would establish a grant program between the California Energy Commission and local communities to build out local clean energy sources for use during power outages, their votes in the committee were reversed: Grove approved it, while Borgeas was the only member who abstained. Neither responded to requests for comment. The bill was placed on suspense file in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Two other pieces of legislation that address the critical functioning of the grid also passed the committee, but several lawmakers didn’t cast votes. SB 881 directs the PUC to ensure electricity providers procure enough power while also meeting climate goals, while SB 1174mandates that state agencies approve transmission projects that would be needed to deliver carbon-free electricity to Californians by 2045.

Sens. Borgeas, Grove and Brian Dahle (R-Shasta County) registered no vote for both of the bills, while two Democratic senators — Steven Bradford (D-Los Angeles County) and Mike McGuire (D-Sonoma County) — recorded no vote for the former. Sen. Susan Eggman (D-San Joaquin County) registered no vote for the latter.

Dahle, McGuire, Bradford and Eggman didn’t respond to requests for comment. Dahle, who is running for governor this year, has taken $102,700 from the industry, while Eggman has taken $52,150, and Bradford, whose staff said he wasn’t present for discussion of the bill, has taken $139,069. McGuire has taken $4,000 from the industry.

In the Assembly, two members of the Utilities and Energy Committee did not vote on a billthat would expand and facilitate sources of zero-carbon power that are more reliable than solar and wind. In the chamber’s Natural Resources Committee, which was reviewing legislation to require the California Energy Commission to adopt electric vehicle charging standards for buildings, three legislators did not register votes.

None of the members — Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo County) and Chad Mayes (I-San Bernardino/Riverside Counties) in Utilities and Energy, and Heath Flora (R-Stanislaus County), Devon Mathis (R-Tulare County/Inyo County) and Kelly Seyarto (R-Riverside County) in Natural Resources—said publicly why they did not submit votes. None responded to requests for comment. Collectively, they’ve taken $419,740 from the oil and gas industry.
 

Blocking Battery Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

In the upper chamber, Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-San Bernardino/Riverside counties) described her reason for voting against a bill mandating battery EV charging infrastructure for parking spaces in new multifamily dwellings during a hearing of the Senate Housing Committee.

The potential for noxious waste from discarded lithium-ion batteries has caused Ochoa Bogh to question “whether these are actually environmentally friendly.” She continued, touting the promise of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles: “My concern with that is, by mandating new construction in California to accommodate [battery electric cars] as an…amenity, that might be unintentionally curbing innovation to other alternatives to gas-powered vehicles and to electric vehicles.”

The half-ton batteries in electric vehicles are indeed toxic and carry potentially fatal amounts of voltage, and are prone to fire, but there are developing efforts — and funding streams — to recycle their parts. It’s also possible in the future that batteries will be based on elements besides lithium, such as sodium, though there are also major doubts about the global supply chain for batteries.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars produce electricity for locomotion, but instead of getting plugged into an outlet, they are refilled with a gaseous hydrogen nozzle similar to a gasoline pump. Though the vehicles themselves emit no greenhouse gases, most methods of producing hydrogen today still rely on natural gas, and the technology hasn’t caught on in the same way as battery EVs, except among some heavy-truck makers.

The oil and gas industry is a major backer of hydrogen vehicles, pushing California to dole out subsidies equivalent to those for battery EVs and raising doubts about transmission infrastructure. Ochoa Bogh has taken $27,600 from the industry throughout her career, including $9,400 from Chevron, a major hydrogen investor. She did not respond to requests for comment. 

Two Democratic senators on the committee did not vote on the bill: Tom Umberg (D-Orange County) and Anna Caballero (D-Merced County), who, combined, have taken $52,019 from the industry. Umberg’s office didn’t return a message, but a staff member for Caballero said her abstention had nothing to do with the oil and gas industry. Instead, the staff member said, it was borne out of her view that the bill circumvents processes established by the California Building Standards Commission.

Another committee member who did not vote on the bill, Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Orange County/San Diego County), is vice chair of the committee, and has taken $58,425 from the industry and has personal investments in an Oregon gas utility with a storage facility near Fresno. She didn’t return a voice message. 

California can help set a precedent by mandating that half of new heavy-duty vehicles purchased by state agencies be zero carbon, which is what SB 1010 would do. Three senators on the Senate Governmental Organization Committee — Brian Jones (R-San Diego County), Melissa Melendez (R-Riverside County) and Jim Nielsen (R-Butte County) — voted against it without explanation, and didn’t respond to requests for comment. Combined, they have taken $214,850 from the oil and gas industry.

When the bill later went in front of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, Dahle voted against it and Bates recorded no vote.

“I’m concerned that meeting [the target] is going to be very difficult and I don’t believe the infrastructure is in place,” Dahle said.

Some Assembly legislators also provided no explanation for their votes on battery EV-related legislation. One bill directing the state’s housing authority to implement mandatory building standards for charging stations in existing multifamily homes, schools, hotels and certain parking structures got a no vote from Seyarto in the Housing and Community Development committee. He did not explain or respond to a request for comment. Another committee member, Asm. Kevin Kiley (R-Sacramento County), recorded no vote, did not respond to a request for comment and has taken $43,950 from the industry.

When it got to the Assembly Education Committee, Megan Dahle (R-Shasta County) voted it down and Phillip Chen (R-Orange County) abstained. Together they’ve taken $95,450 from the industry.

If more chargers are built to keep pace with increasing purchases of battery EVs, then it will be essential for the state to monitor that they’re working properly — especially chargers located in neglected lower-income and less white communities. A bill directing battery EV charger manufacturers that receive state funds to report data on their functioning was approved by most members of the Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee, but four members — including Cunningham and Mayes, but also Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) and Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) — did not register votes.

Patterson has taken $89,349 from the industry and Carrillo has taken $7,150. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Many of these legislators are also on multiple committees. Sens. Jones and Bates, for example, are both on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Neither voted on SB 1174, the bill to boost transmission infrastructure, when it came before that committee. It has been placed on suspense file.

(Aaron Miguel Cantú is an investigative reporter and writer for Capital & Main.  He is currently based in Los Angeles.)