California Approves a Wave of Aggressive New Climate Measures

Source: By Brad Plumer, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, September 1, 2022

After lobbying by the governor, lawmakers adopted $54 billion in climate spending and voted to keep open the state’s last nuclear plant.

A wide view of hills blackened from fire, with an empty highway cutting through. Giant clouds of smoke billow into the sky on the horizon, with transmission lines leading to electricity pylons in the distance.
The Route Fire burning alongside Interstate 5 in Castaic, Calif., on Wednesday.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

California took some of its most aggressive steps yet to fight global warming as lawmakers passed a flurry of new climate bills late Wednesday, including a record $54 billion in climate spending, a measure to prevent the state’s last nuclear power plant from closing, sharp new restrictions on oil and gas drilling and a mandate that California stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2045.

The bills, passed around midnight at the end of a frenzied two-year legislative session in Sacramento, marked a victory for Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who has sought to portray himself as a climate leader as he has raised his national profile and begun drawing speculation about a possible White House run.

Mr. Newsom upended the legislative session in mid-August when he urged lawmakers to pass several major new climate bills. In the end, all of his proposals passed but one: a bill to strengthen the state’s 2030 target for slashing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, which fell short by four votes in the State Assembly.

“Together with the Legislature’s leadership, the progress we make on the climate crisis this year will be felt for generations and the impact will spread far beyond our borders,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement.

The new actions by California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, add momentum to growing efforts nationwide to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of oil, gas and coal that are overheating the planet.

In August, President Biden signed an expansive climate law that would invest $370 billion over the next decade in low-emissions energy sources such as wind, solar and nuclear power. But that law alone won’t be enough to eliminate U.S. greenhouse gases by 2050, a target that climate scientists say the world as a whole must reach to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. To help close the gap, White House officials have said that states also need to take more forceful action.

California already has some of the nation’s most stringent policies to promote renewable energy and shift away from fossil fuels. Last month, state regulators finalized a plan to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035, a policy that could be adopted by other states and is widely expected to accelerate the global transition toward cleaner electric vehicles.

But as record-breaking heat waves, droughts and wildfires have battered the state, Mr. Newsom has faced increasing pressure from environmentalists to do more. While lawmakers voted in Sacramento, the National Weather Service warned that a “very dangerous” heat wave would grip the state through Labor Day weekend.

The new bills aim to bolster California’s plans to cut emissions, though experts said that state regulators would now need to do the difficult work of achieving those targets.

State lawmakers had previously set a legally binding goal for California to slash its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Under new legislation passed Wednesday, the state will now have to cut emissions at least 85 percent by 2045 while offsetting any remaining emissions by planting more trees or using still-unproven technologies like direct air capture, which collects gasses after they’ve already been discharged into the atmosphere.

Still, setting an ambitious goal is only the first step. For now, the state is not even on track to meet its 2030 goals, said Danny Cullenward, policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit group that evaluates climate programs. He argued that California regulators were still putting too much faith in a cap-and-trade program that imposes a ceiling on emissions from large polluters but that has come under criticism for being too lenient.

“If these new targets force state regulators to go back to the drawing board and come up with a credible new plan to cut emissions, that’s great,” Mr. Cullenward said. “But in my view they still don’t have a realistic plan for implementation, and that’s the most important part.”

Other bills passed by the legislature would require more concrete steps.

Lawmakers approved a budget laid out by Mr. Newsom that would spend a record $54 billion over five years on climate programs. That includes $6.1 billion for electric vehicles, including money to buy new battery-powered school buses, $14.8 billion for transit and rail projects, more than $8 billion to clean up the electric grid, $2.7 billion to fight wildfires and $2.8 billion in water programs to help the state deal with drought.

As part of that spending package, legislators endorsed a plan to keep open the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, a pair of nuclear reactors that provide 9 percent of California’s electricity without producing any emissions.

Those reactors were originally scheduled to close in 2024 and 2025, but the new plan extends those deadlines to 2029 and 2030 while providing a $1.4 billion loan to Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that operates the plant. PG&E is also expected to apply for money from a new $6 billion federal program designed to keep open existing nuclear plants.

Mr. Newsom had once been a firm believer that Diablo Canyon should shut down. But as California has faced increasingly severe heat waves that drive up demand for electricity and strain the grid, the state has struggled to keep the lights on. So, this summer, Mr. Newsom reversed course and urged lawmakers to keep the plant open.

Some environmentalists criticized the move, arguing that the money would be better spent on other clean energy resources like solar and wind power and batteries. But proponents of keeping the plant open warned that California badly needed the electricity, and if the plant closed, it would be replaced with more polluting sources like natural gas.

In a letter to the Assembly on Tuesday, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, urged state lawmakers to act. “The alternative to the closure of the reactors at Diablo Canyon will most likely be additional natural gas generation, which would reverse progress on emissions reductions and worsen air quality,” she wrote.

One of the most contentious measures passed by the legislature is a requirement that new oil and gas wells be set back at least 3,200 feet from homes, schools and hospitals, while imposing strict pollution controls on existing wells within that distance.

California is the nation’s seventh-largest producer of oil, but has never before enforced buffer zones around wells the way states like Colorado and Pennsylvania do. Backers of the new buffer zones estimated that 2.7 million Californians live within 3,200 feet of oil and gas wells, and a state health panel concluded last year that living near active wells increases the risk of asthma, heart attacks and premature births.

For years, environmentalists had pressed for new setback requirements, but bills to do so had twice died in the State Senate after fierce lobbying from oil and gas groups, which argued that the requirements would cripple energy production and drive up fuel costs.

But this time, Mr. Newsom threw his weight behind the setback bill and it passed.

The bills also order regulators to establish new guidelines for the use of carbon capture and storage, which involves trapping carbon dioxide from polluting industrial facilities and burying it underground. Mr. Newsom has said the technology, which has struggled to gain traction because of high costs, is needed for the state to meet its climate targets, though some climate activists oppose it because it would allow industries to keep burning fossil fuels. Notably, the legislation would ban the use of captured carbon dioxide for extracting more crude oil.

Earlier in the week, lawmakers also approved several new bills to encourage denser housing in cities and to lift requirements that new homes built near bus or train stops include parking spots. While those measures were primarily intended to alleviate the state’s housing crisis, experts said they would very likely help reduce emissions as well by reducing Californians’ dependency on driving.

“Housing policy often gets lost in climate discussions, but this is actually one of the best ways that we can reduce emissions,” said Ethan Elkind, a law professor and climate expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “If we can help more people live near transit and in places where they don’t need a car, then who cares if they have an electric vehicle?”

Some policy experts credited the governor with helping to break the logjam around climate policy in California. Many of the legislature’s climate bills appeared to be languishing until Mr. Newsom intervened in early August, laying out a five-point plan and urging lawmakers to send bills to his desk.

“For the last few years, the Senate has been the place where climate policy goes to die,” said David Weiskopf, a senior policy adviser at NextGen Policy, a climate advocacy organization. “But then Newsom showed up and said let’s get climate done. He’d never done that before.”

Business groups had criticized the last-minute policymaking drive.

“Rushing policies that will impact every aspect of California’s trillion-dollar economy through the legislature at the end of session and without time for a thorough debate addressing reliability, affordability and equity is the wrong approach,” said a statement from a coalition of business groups, which include the California Business Roundtable and California Chamber of Commerce.

Others wondered if Gov. Newsom’s political ambitions were in play. The governor is on the ballot in November, and is heavily favored to win re-election after beating back a recall attempt last year. And in recent months, he has sought to raise his profile on the national stage, drawing presidential speculation after he purchased ads in Florida and Texas criticizing Republican governors over laws related to guns and abortion.

“He’s been doing a lot to get the national press talking about him,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego. “But now he’s focused on delivering some clear wins.”

Mr. Newsom has previously said he has “subzero interest” in running for president in 2024. But if he does mount a bid in the future, political analysts said, climate could be a potent issue.

“If you think about 2028, there’s going to be a dramatic demographic shift, where young voters who are very climate-oriented today are going to be middle-aged and dominate the election,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist. “So it’s very good positioning.”

Ivan Penn contributed reporting.