When much of the country tilted to the right politically on Election Day, it created waves felt even in the bluest state on the left coast.
Democrats still control the California governor's mansion and both chambers of the Legislature, one of the few places where that triumvirate remains. And the Golden State is home to some of the country's most ambitious clean energy rules that liberals back, including the only economywide cap-and-trade program limiting carbon emissions.
California long has been seen as a place that leads the country in innovations, including on energy. But with Congress now headed by Republicans likely to reject any climate or energy mandates, California's larger political role going forward is newly up for debate.
Some conservatives argue that the election represented a push back against government oversight, a message that makes California less likely to wield influence. Environmentalists and other climate action supporters contend California will be more important, as one of the few places illustrating the positive impact of clean energy policies.
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), just re-elected to his fourth term, rejected the notion that the election put the brakes on moves toward mitigating climate change. By 2050, he said, "we have to dramatically and radically reduce our dependence" on industries and energy sources that emit carbon.
"This is real. We've seen what the drought does. We've seen the extreme weather events. Our fire budget is way overspent," Brown told reporters the day after the election. "This is serious stuff. And the fact that there's some politicians who've put their head in the sand will not stop the growing awareness that the world has to do something."
Brown added, "I'm going to take it as one of my major responsibilities to help bring people around. So I will go to Washington. I'll go to other places. I'll do whatever I can -- not overnight, but over the next four years, I think I'll be able to do it."
California is home to 38.3 million people, about 12 percent of the country's population. Its economy is comparable to the eighth-largest in the world, based on 2012 figures. The state had clean air rules before the federal Clean Air Act became law. And its requirement that automakers produce cars with better mileage paved the way for the federal fuel economy standard.
In addition to cap and trade, the Golden State is advancing a plethora of other climate policies. Those include a mandate that utilities make one-third of their power from renewable fuels by 2020, a low carbon fuel standard designed to spur adoption of biofuels and a regulation requiring carmakers to produce increasing numbers of cars without emissions.
"Given its size, it's tough for California to not be relevant," Mike McKenna, a Washington, D.C.-based GOP energy consultant, said in an email. "At the same time, I think that most of the nation views California as a cautionary tale rather than an example. High unemployment, business flight, wealth inequality, high adult illiteracy rate -- it is not a very appealing cocktail."
"That said," McKenna added, "everyone is watching" to see what happens with the state's low carbon fuel standard, its cap-and-trade program and the arguments to replace it with a carbon tax.
Losses for Steyer's PAC
The election showed that California's policies aren't popular outside the Golden State, said Matt Dempsey, spokesman for Secure Our Fuels, a campaign fighting against a federal low carbon fuel standard.
He noted the $85 million in campaign contributions that environmental groups and Tom Steyer, the San Francisco-based billionaire environmentalist, spent backing candidates who support climate action. Democrats won in just three of the seven high-profile races where Steyer spent money, and Dempsey said those victories would have happened without Steyer's help.
"Essentially, this election saw the California model through Tom Steyer's work and completely rejected it," Dempsey said.
In Washington state, Steyer spent money to help candidates who supported Gov. Jay Inslee's (D) push for a low carbon fuel standard and a carbon tax, Dempsey said. But Republicans nabbed seats in the Evergreen State, keeping a narrow majority in the state Senate.
"The rest of the country has enjoyed the benefits of an energy boom," Dempsey said, citing the production of oil and natural gas from hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional oil drilling. "California has essentially walled itself off."
Suzanne Henkels, spokeswoman for Steyer's NextGen Climate Action, pushed back against Dempsey's criticisms.
"A Big Oil front group's opinion on energy and climate is about as credible as Vladimir Putin offering recommendations on democracy, Joe Camel giving advice on children's health or Fat Albert dispensing weight loss tips," Henkels said in an email. "Tom Steyer has beaten Big Oil in California before and will beat them again when it comes to making sure Californians get a fair shake."
Henkels added, "As for California's national importance, history is pretty clear that our state has served as a national platform for social, economic, cultural and political change in our country for some time. We would welcome Big Oil remaining ignorant to the lessons of history -- especially as this is an issue where history will judge people as to whether or not they chose to stand up for the best interests of our kids."
EPA rule highlights Calif.?
Some backers of California's climate policies believe the state takes on added significance with the country's move to the right Nov. 4.
"What happens ... when you have an unfriendly Congress is that everybody looks to different states," said Susan Frank, director of the California Business Alliance for a Clean Economy. "California's natural leadership becomes more important on an optics level."
Frank said other states that want to move forward on climate won't be able to rely on federal research. "They're going to look to California as the model," she said.
Frank and others said California's climate programs will offer an example as states decide how to comply with U.S. EPA's power plant rule. The agency is asking power plants by 2030 to cut greenhouse gas emissions roughly 30 percent compared with 2005 levels. It's giving states the ability to choose how they'll comply.
"If you look in the power sector, California's leadership in reducing emissions through renewables gives models to follow," said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air. California also is looking at action on short-lived climate pollutants like methane and hydrofluorocarbons, he said, which could be a policy option for other states.
But McKenna, the GOP consultant, said he doesn't expect California to be used as a model for compliance.
"With the possible exception of Washington, I don't think anyone is looking to California for guidance or example with respect to the existing source rule," McKenna said. "Texas, yes. California, no."
There are some who believe the GOP will try to thwart rollout of the rule by blocking EPA funding. And even if that doesn't happen, the regulation could be in trouble, said Scott Segal, a partner representing power companies, oil and gas, and manufacturing at law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.
"A lot of that rule will be subject to very significant legal scrutiny," Segal said. "No one in California or elsewhere should get to the notion that the 111(d) rule is going to exist in anywhere near the state in which it was proposed."
Attempting extension of cap and trade likely
Republicans in California picked up three seats in the state Assembly in last week's election. In January, the chamber will have 52 Democrats and 28 in the GOP, compared with the 55 Democrats and 24 Republicans with one seat vacant in the last session.
The state Senate will soon have 25 Democrats and 14 Republicans with one seat vacant. It previously had 27 Democrats to 12 in the GOP and one vacancy.
There are questions about what that means for the future of the state's landmark cap-and-trade program. Cap and trade right now lasts until 2020. The state's Air Resources Board (ARB) has said it intends to establish carbon reduction targets for 2030 and beyond and look at ways to hit those goals. There's a debate about whether the ARB needs the Legislature to pass a bill cementing the extension of cap and trade, or whether the agency can do it on its own. And there's controversy over whether broadening it through the Legislature would need a simple majority or a two-thirds vote. California law requires a two-thirds vote to pass taxes. Opponents of cap and trade argue it is a tax.
"We have some challenges ahead to makes sure we keep our very popular climate policies on track," said Frank with the California Business Alliance for a Clean Economy.
Magavern with the Coalition for Clean Air said that "even in the old Legislature it would have been impossible to get a two-thirds supermajority" to extend cap and trade. But he said he won't be alarmed if the program isn't continued past 2030. He has concerns about the program because it allows refineries to buy permits at auction instead of reducing emissions on site. That hurts communities near plants, he said.
"For some of us, cap and trade was never the most important part" of the state's climate law, he said. "There are lots of other policy tools for reducing emissions," including the low carbon fuel standard, appliance standards and building standards that mandate greater efficiency, and incentives for buying cleaner equipment in the transportation and utility sectors.
Cap and trade accounts for 20 percent of the state's emissions reductions, he said, adding "we can make up that 20 percent in ways that may be more effective and more equitable."
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