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Environmental Groups Confront Oil Industry-Backed Attempt to Repeal California’s Landmark Emissions Law in Prop 23

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We turn to Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that would effectively repeal California’s landmark global warming emissions law. Two Texas oil companies with refineries in California, the Valero and Tesoro corporations, launched a campaign to suspend implementation of the law until state unemployment falls to 5.5 percent for at least one year. We speak to the leaders of two environmental organizations opposed to Proposition 23: Michael Brune of Sierra Club and Rebecca Tarbotton of Rainforest Action Network. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We move to another proposition, and that is Prop 23 here in California, is getting a great deal of attention, Prop 23. We’re going to be joined now, as we talk about Prop 23, by two leaders in the environmental community, a ballot initiative that would effectively repeal California’s landmark global warming emissions law. AB32, or the Global Warming Solutions Act, is the country’s strongest climate change law and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. It’s supposed to go into effect in, oh, 2012.

But two Texas oil companies with refineries in California, the Valero and Tesoro corporations, launched a campaign to suspend implementation of this law until state unemployment falls to 5.5 percent for at least one year. Unemployment in California is currently at 12 percent. Other supporters of Prop 23 include Kansas billionaires and Tea Party funders Charles and David Koch.

Opponents of Prop 23 include a wide array of environmental groups, as well green technology companies, hedge fund manager Thomas Steyer, former Secretary of State George Shultz, and Gap founder Robert Fisher. So far, opponents of Prop 23 have raised $16.3 million, nearly twice as much as supporters of the initiative.

This is a sampling of the ads on both sides of Prop 23.

NO ON 23 AD: California is outlining a clean energy future, a growing workforce of bright Californians who harness wind and solar power to move our state forward. But two Texas oil companies have a deceptive scheme to take us backwards. They’re spending millions pushing Prop 23, which would kill clean energy standards, keep us addicted to costly polluting oil and threaten hundreds of thousands of California jobs. Stop the job-killing dirty energy proposition. Vote no on 23.

YES ON 23 AD: I have enough bills, but now the politicians are putting a new energy tax on us to pay for California’s global warming plan. Yes on 23 stops the energy tax, preventing a 60 percent increase in electricity rates and higher gas prices, and saves more than a million jobs. I want to do my part on global warming. All Yes on 23 says is, let’s wait until people are back to work and we can afford it. Yes on 23, it’s common sense.

Save jobs. Stop the energy tax. Yes on 23.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’m joined now in San Francisco by leaders of two environmental organizations opposed to Prop 23. Michael Brune is the executive director of Sierra Club and author of the book Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal. Rebecca Tarbotton is the executive director of Rainforest Action Network.

By the way, Becky, well, congratulations on your new position as head of Rainforest Action Network.


AMY GOODMAN: As you replace Michael Brune, who’s gone over to the Sierra Club.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Yes, Becky, congratulations.


AMY GOODMAN: So, Michael, let’s begin with you on Prop 23. Explain it to the nation, to the world.

MICHAEL BRUNE: OK, so Prop 23 would suspend the Global Warming Solutions Act, which, as you said, is arguably the most effective piece of climate legislation right now in the country. It would take greenhouse gas emissions in the state of California and bring it back to 1990 levels by the end of this decade. This is an important battle. It’s the most important climate fight in this election, primarily for two reasons. One, strategically, we’re already seeing a massive stimulation of clean energy development in the state, which is a big reason why you’ve got solar companies, wind companies, energy efficiency companies, who are fighting this proposition strongly, and they’re putting lots of money into it. But also, just from a moral and ethical perspective, it’s just not right to have out-of-state oil companies or the Koch brothers put millions of dollars into an effort to undermine California law. My wife and I, we live in the state. We’re raising kids in the state. We’re starting to see California begin to respond to climate change and lead the rest of the country. And this is an important battle, because we can’t go backwards at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the origins of Prop 23.

MICHAEL BRUNE: So, Prop 23 was put on the ballot essentially by Tesoro and Valero, two out-of-state oil companies. They’re refineries. They don’t have a massive retail presence in the state, but they’re based in Texas, and they have major refinery operations in the state. It was put on the ballot essentially to put a hold on the implementation of the Global Warming Solutions Act, which was signed four years ago by Governor Schwarzenegger after a strong majority of the Democratic-controlled legislature passed it.

What we’re seeing in response is a pretty remarkable coalition. And in a way, you can look at this as the future of climate change battles across the country, because what we’re seeing is you’ve got some Republicans, some Democrats, people from the environmental community, local community organizations and the business community all working together, so that the positive view of this is that it’s creating a civil war in the business community, in which a number of major business initiatives realize that there’s good money to be made in a clean energy economy. The bad news is that what we know is that coal companies and oil companies will always fight any progressive initiative anywhere around the country whenever they see something that threatens their profits. So this is a harbinger of what’s to come, as we see more climate change legislation be passed around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: California gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman have both opposed Prop 23, but Whitman has proposed suspending the Global Warming Solutions Act for a year due to California’s economy. They debated the issue on Tuesday.

JERRY BROWN: The people who are crying are two oil companies in Texas and a big conglomerate, a petrochemical conglomerate from Midwest. They’re putting up all the money. Yeah, they don’t want to deal with it, because — and one of them said, “My god, they’re going to use less oil in California!” You bet. We’re going to use more California sun and more California wind, and we’ll get it done.

MEG WHITMAN: With regard to Prop 23, that would have effectively eliminated AB32. I said I didn’t support that, because I thought a one-year moratorium on the implementation was a better way to go. So that’s where I stand on all of that. We can be green and smart, but we cannot jeopardize the unemployment — the jobs of people who are working so hard and barely making it today, because we have 2.3 million Californians who wake up without a job, and that has to be our first priority, to keep jobs in California and to keep people employed.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Meg Whitman-Jerry Brown debate on Tuesday night. Our guests, Michael Brune of Sierra Club and Rebecca Tarbotton of Rainforest Action Network.

Becky, this last issue of suspending the Global Warming Solutions Act for a year due to the state of the economy here in California?

REBECCA TARBOTTON: I think that what we’re seeing with Prop 23 is that, essentially, major oil companies are trying to make California a safe haven for their operations. And that’s why it’s incredibly important that we oppose it with everything we have, because California, at the moment, is positioned as a real leader on climate in this country, and if we lose this very important legislation or lose the ability to implement AB32, then we’re setting the entire country back many years.

AMY GOODMAN: How are you organizing in this state?

REBECCA TARBOTTON: The organizing, I think, as Mike referred to, is really happening with huge coalitions coming together and really trying to educate voters about the importance of keeping AB32 strong and alive going into the future and keeping California at the real forefront.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the obstacles that you have faced here? I mean, how much money is going into both campaigns?

REBECCA TARBOTTON: There’s a huge amount of money going into both sides, but actually the anti campaign is raising an enormous amount, partly because progressive businesses, as Mike mentioned, a lot of the renewable energy sector, Silicon Valley, really sees the opportunities that are afforded by AB32 as really pushing California as a leader in the green energy economy.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Yeah, you know, we don’t just want to win this campaign. We don’t want to just defeat Prop 23. We need to rout it. We need to defeat this in a major way. So, Sierra Club, we’ve hired nine organizers who are working around the state. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is hiring organizers working in low-income communities and communities of color. Almost every major environmental organization — Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club — is putting resources and energy into this fight. The good news is that we are raising more money than our opponents. We’re raising more money than the oil industry. The other good news is that there are volunteers working throughout the state to defeat the initiative. But we want to rout it. We want to send a strong signal across the country that we can and we will defeat Big Oil.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you see this being proposed in other places, as you see Prop 23 here?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, you almost see it anywhere, really. So, like, you’re seeing it in — nationally in efforts where coal companies and oil companies are trying to gut the Clean Air Act Amendment, and they’re trying to take away EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. So it’s more of a thematic strategy, that whenever progress is being made to promote clean energy development or to regulate climate change, that oil and companies will fight — oil and coal companies will fight back. Of course they will, because it’s threatening their profits. So, rather than adapt and to transition to a clean energy future, they’re digging in their heels.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to our next segment, I do want to find out from you, as you take on the helm here at the Rainforest Action Network in California, what the other issues that you’re working on, particularly you have one of the largest oil companies in the world based right here in California, Chevron.

REBECCA TARBOTTON: Exactly. RAN really works at the intersection of climate change and deforestation by challenging corporate power. And one of the companies we’re taking on, and as Mike really laid this out well, Chevron is California’s largest corporation. It’s also a company that’s fight — has fought AB32 with a lot of money and effort. And it’s a company that has a lot of dirty secrets around the world, in terms of major impacts it’s had on communities. It’s currently in the middle of a court battle because of a huge oil spill in Ecuador that it led to in — seventeen years ago, when it bought Texaco, and it’s been fighting the cleanup of that oil spill for many, many years. And one of our efforts is to actually expose the fact that this big company, which is trying to position itself as neutral on Prop 23, is actually very much fighting AB32 and is also unwilling to clean up messes from the past. And we want to make sure that Chevron is held accountable for that and that oil companies in the future are forced to actually pay attention to the community and environmental impacts of their operations before they enter into an extractive industry proposition.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has been their — their response been to you?

REBECCA TARBOTTON: They are putting everything they have into not being held accountable and not paying up for the damage they did in Ecuador. They’re trying to ignore us, and they’re not having much success. We’re showing up wherever we can find them. We’re making sure that John Watson, Chevron’s CEO, knows that wherever he is, the issue of Ecuador will be on his radar, that we’ll be there to make sure that he realizes that he’s not going to be able to pretend that Chevron is a clean operator until they actually deal with the Chevron mess.

AMY GOODMAN: And Michael Brune, Sierra Club, you’ve just recently taken over at Sierra Club.


AMY GOODMAN: The issues that you’re working on?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Sure, well, the Sierra Club, over the last few years, we have made a major priority to stop the construction of new coal-fired power plants. And there’s great news to share, that working with a coalition of environmental groups — Earthjustice, EarthWorks, community fenceline groups, Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace and others — we’ve helped to stop the construction of 138 — 138 — new coal-fired power plants. Now, the top priority for us is to not just stop new plants from being built, but shutting existing ones down. We want to retire old coal plants, replace them with clean energy, cut carbon in the short term, but scale up the solar and wind industries so that they become more effective and start providing more clean energy and more jobs for a growing part of the population.

AMY GOODMAN: And Michael Brune, your response to the Obama administration lifting the temporary ban on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico?

MICHAEL BRUNE: We opposed it. You know, there’s a little bit of good news, in that there are at least now more effective regulations put in place. But offshore oil drilling is a dirty, it’s a dangerous, it’s a deadly business, as we’re finding out. We can’t drill our way to oil independence. So it is — it was a responsible move by the administration to put in tighter regulations, but there is an absence of strong leadership that we’re seeing from the White House and from Congress to declare a strong, bold goal to break America’s addiction to oil, to set a target by which we would reduce our consumption of oil, and then rally the public, give all of us who really care about this issue something tangible and specific to do to cut our oil consumption. That’s what we’re waiting for.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club, and Rebecca Tarbotton, the new executive director of Rainforest Action Network, thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Thanks for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to talk about education here in California and its national implications. Stay with us.

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