The California Assembly is set to vote this Thursday, July 13, on a pair of bills which would determine our state’s ability to control greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. AB 398 would extend California’s current cap-and-trade system while AB 617 would put in place additional monitoring of airborne pollutants and impose penalties on polluters. The pair of bills have an “interesting” mix of measures to get lukewarm support of mainline environmental groups, industry, and climate change policy wonks. AB 398 in particular is problematic – it’s being rushed through the legislative process by Speaker Rendon and Governor Jerry Brown, with a vote set for just 72 hours after the publication of the bill’s text.
The bills’ compromises – deals for fossil fuel companies, utility companies, pollution penalties, and funding for vulnerable communities – were engineered to achieve a bipartisan two-thirds majority, including moderate Democrats and some environmental supporters who otherwise might have held out for a more forward-thinking plan. AB 398, which deals with carbon emissions, is a retread of our current cap-and-trade system with some modifications that will extend it to 2030. The extension has some odd-seeming provisions such as stripping local air quality management boards’ powers to innovate for their jurisdictions, but it essentially contains much of the same problems that experts have identified with the current cap-and-trade scheme. Perhaps most importantly for environmental justice advocates and some other critics of the bill, the bill yields to business by setting a limit on the prices that businesses will be charged in the future for buying emissions allowances, rather than increasing the price of those allowances over time. It would also allow companies to hoard and bank carbon allowances, giving them more leeway to pollute.
The bottom line, however, is that this bill represents a genuine missed opportunity for leadership on climate change policy on a global scale.
That missed opportunity becomes evident in light of SB 775, the other significant piece of climate legislation wending its way through the legislative committee process. With less of the flashy support from leadership (and thus dismissal by some of the larger environmental groups), this bill has some breakthrough carbon pricing mechanisms which aim to return increasing dividends to every California resident, in a similar fashion as Alaska’s Permanent Fund program. The shift from a regulatory regime (setting a cap) to more of an incentives-based regime for reducing carbon intensity over time (including a border adjustment tax based on carbon intensity of an imported good) would allow California to leverage the massive size of its market to start the domino effect of promoting carbon pricing beyond its own borders.
The disparity between what we could achieve and the politically expedient goal of staying with the tried and true is vast. We have no illusions about how this vote will go down on Thursday, nor do we expect SB 775 to proceed in the legislature if AB 398 passes, since the two are competing programs that cover the exact same time period. For those who want California to lead and innovate in climate policy, however, we recommend using our call script here to urge legislators to oppose AB 398 and support SB 775. At the end of the day, we need time for more debate and commentary so that we can arrive on a truly forward-thinking plan. A rushed 72-hour window does not achieve this outcome.
UPDATE: As of 4 PM, due to voter demand for more time to consider the bills, the votes have been pushed to Monday, July 17. IEB Member Mandeep Gill and Colin Miller of Oakland Climate Action were in Sacramento and met with our reps and staffers all day about why we want the better climate policy in SB775. Keep calling!