A California state senator elected just two years ago is becoming one of the biggest names in environmental law and clean energy expansion.
Michael Rubio, 35, this month took over as chairman of the state Senate's Environmental Quality Committee, which controls legislation tied to air, water and land protections. A Democrat from a conservative, rural district in the Central Valley, he supports some green causes but also takes positions that make environmental groups anxious.
One of his top priorities is paring the California Environmental Quality Act, the landmark conservation law also known as CEQA.
Rubio last year drafted a controversial approach to limiting CEQA, a proposal he dropped before ever submitting it as a bill. He was elevated to the committee chairman post weeks later and now is positioned to steer a rewrite. It puts the first-term senator in a prime spot politically, analysts said, and increases odds there will be shifts in the law.
"He's considered to be very much of a pragmatist and a centrist. That's his reputation," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. Because of that, Schnur said, Rubio "has a much greater chance of success in this area than someone seen as ideologically extreme."
"He's seen as one of the rising stars in the Legislature," Schnur added. "This is an issue on which he's certainly most likely to develop a statewide reputation."
Rubio, who currently is California's youngest senator, stepped in as chairman of the Environmental Quality Committee after former Sen. Joe Simitian (D) left the Senate because of California's term limits. Simitian, from the San Francisco Bay Area, largely was a defender of CEQA.
Rubio hails from central California, representing the state Senate's 16th District. It includes all of Kings County and parts of Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties. Republicans in last year's election made up 46 percent of registered voters there, while Democrats made up 30 percent. An additional 19 percent of voters in the district didn't declare a political party, and 4 percent were independents.
The region's top industries are oil production and agriculture, but Kern County also led the state last year in renewable energy development. It approved seven times more wind and solar than the next closest county.
Country music legend Buck Owens, who came from Kern County, is considered a local hero, while former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, who attended school there, mostly is unpopular because "he's viewed as not conservative enough," said Mark Martinez, a political science professor at California State University, Bakersfield.
"This is a place where rugged individualists make it," Martinez said, adding that "you could probably take Bakersfield and put it in Texas and most people here wouldn't skip a beat."
Rubio, who served as a Kern County supervisor before his election to the Senate, gained popularity there because he was seen as non-ideological, Martinez said.
"He built a record of being someone who could work across the aisle," Martinez said. "People liked that he was very much pro-business and he concentrated on what was right for his district."
Rubio likely has a promising political future, Martinez said.
"He's somebody that you could see moving on to the next level very easily," Martinez said. "He's got a presence about him, and he is very, very sharp.
"He understands the game," Martinez added, "but he's concerned about policy."
Rubio has looked beyond the Golden State politically. In 2011, he threw his hat in the ring for the newly drawn U.S. House 21st District, which was an open race at the time. He withdrew from the race after the birth of his younger daughter, who has Down syndrome. He said at the time that "my family needs me more today than Congress does." Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), a 35-year-old dairy farmer, in November was elected to the spot.
Political winds 'aligning' on CEQA
Rubio's appointment to be Environmental Quality Committee chairman comes at a time many experts see as pivotal for CEQA. First enacted in 1970, the statute requires state and local agencies to put all prospective developments through a series of steps aimed at minimizing ecological harms. It's revered by environmentalists but also blamed for slowing development.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D), who named Rubio the committee chairman, supports changes to the law. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has dubbed amending the measure "the Lord's work."
"There's a lot of chatter that if there's ever going to be a kind of big gutting of CEQA that it could happen this year, that the political winds are sort of aligning," said Ethan Elkind, a climate research fellow at the University of California.
When Steinberg put Rubio atop the committee, green groups expressed concern it would jeopardize CEQA. Those who saw Rubio's streamline proposal last year said that it would have sheltered some developments from CEQA lawsuits if they had met other local, state or federal environmental statutes.
That reform effort "really would have been pretty drastic," Elkind said. "That put a lot of environmentalists on edge. That's made a lot of them very skeptical about him.
"There's a lot of concern he's going to use the committee to roll back some of the protections already in place," Elkind added.
Rubio, in a series of interviews on his plans for CEQA, said that his efforts have been mischaracterized.
"There are many who don't want to change CEQA at all. They want to keep it exactly the way it is," Rubio said. "They want to distort the facts. It's really unfortunate."
Under his latest proposal, which is still in the works, "nobody has an exemption in CEQA," Rubio said. "Everyone has to go through a thorough CEQA analysis."
Rubio described himself as "a big proponent and supporter" of CEQA. "It's done a tremendous amount of good in protecting the environment and natural resources for the last 40 years," he said.
"What I'd like to see is some modernization of CEQA so it can last another four decades," he added.
Clash between CEQA, renewables?
As a senator and before that as a Kern County supervisor, Rubio said he found that "CEQA has been misused or abused," including cases where people filed lawsuits for non-environmental reasons. That creates conflicts, he said, between the state wanting more green energy and CEQA creating so much bureaucracy, it can take years to get a project approved.
"You can't have it both ways," Rubio said. "If we're going to reduce greenhouse gases, if we're going to have a third of our power that's generated in the state come from renewable energy, than we have to have large-scale renewable energy projects."
There needs to be a better method of permitting those projects, he said, "so if it's located in the right location, it has the least amount of impact on environment, then it's able to move forward. That's going to be critically important."
Some red tape could be cut, Rubio said, if developers were allowed to use recent studies from state and local agencies. If the city of Fresno, he said, updates its general plan and completes an environmental impact report (EIR), a company with a relevant project "should be able to use [the city's] transportation plan or traffic study plan." The developer then would fold it into its own EIR, he said, and would still need to meet other mandates of CEQA.
"We have duplication built into the process because the cities and counties are so afraid of being sued," he added.
One high-ranking state Democrat, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely, said having Rubio as chairman of the committee will help California's renewable energy expansion because so much of it is happening in places like Kern County. For growth to continue, the person said, support has to come from conservative districts like Rubio's.
Rubio said that his background helps bring an important voice to conversations about environmental issues. Some of the biggest state battles, he said, aren't between Republicans and Democrats but rather between "urban and rural California."
"For those that live on the coast or the coastline, it's easy to say we need a 40 percent" renewable power mandate, as some people have suggested, Rubio said.
"Where is the transmission going to go?" he asked. Additionally, he said, there are issues of who will pay the added costs.
Rubio has met with interested groups to talk about changes to CEQA. He also has been conferring with Senate leadership, looking for "areas that we agree are important components of CEQA that we should preserve, because it has served us well."
They also are discussing "areas that have been abused that we can work on," Rubio added. He plans to go back to interested groups with a general framework before introducing a bill within the next month.
Environmentalists are waiting to see what unfolds.
"We're getting to know him," said Sarah Rose, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters, which gave Rubio a D grade for his first two years in the state Senate. "He's taken on a new role with some pretty significant importance to environmental policy in California, on CEQA as well as other issues."
Rubio should remember that Californians largely support environmental protections, Rose said.
Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, has met with Rubio on CEQA.
"He wants to find a balance that works," Notthoff added. "Identifying what that balance is is going to be the trick." NRDC, she said, wants to "maintain the integrity of CEQA."
Others interested in CEQA believe Rubio will use the same non-ideological approach he employed as a Kern County supervisor.
"He listens, he learns, then he leads," said Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association for more than 375 companies. Guardino is working with a coalition that includes businesses, hospitals, public agencies and labor groups. In its conversations with Rubio, he said, the coalition has pushed several points, including that CEQA should have more transparency. When someone sues, Guardino said, it should be clear who is bringing the case.
Guardino said he is a friend of Rubio's in addition to working with him on the CEQA issue.
"If anyone can be successful on an issue as entrenched as this one, it will be a thoughtful leader in the mold of Michael Rubio," he said.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.