Groups press California governor hopefuls for climate specifics

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2018

Clean energy advocates are pushing California’s gubernatorial candidates to take a stand on outgoing Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s ambitious greenhouse gas and renewable goals.

Under the hashtag #CleanEconomyGovernor, a half-dozen clean energy trade groups across the state are trying to figure out how Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and San Diego businessman John Cox (R) would implement the energy and climate goals Brown has set in motion. They include this month’s new targets to achieve 100 percent zero-carbon electricity and economywide “carbon neutrality” by 2045.

“So far that hasn’t necessarily floated to the top of their respective platforms, so we’re trying to elevate the conversation,” said Kerri Timmer, vice president of climate and energy at the Sierra Business Council.

The campaign, launched yesterday, underscores the relative dearth of environmental policy discussions — or any discussions — in the race to replace the termed-out Brown. Newsom and Cox haven’t had any debates yet; their first and only scheduled debate so far will take place Oct. 8.

After a primary victory over his main Democratic challenger, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Newsom has maintained a lead over Cox in all public polls, although the margin has fluctuated significantly, from 29 percentage points in a June poll to 5 points earlier this month.

Observers generally assume Newsom will maintain Brown’s trajectory on climate and other environmental issues, and possibly veer to the left if given the opportunity (Climatewire, June 12). He has said he’ll issue an order putting the state on a path to 100 percent renewable energy on his “first day in office,” as well as a goal of eliminating diesel pollution by 2030 through replacing trucks and port equipment with electric or hydrogen-fueled versions.

Cox — who earlier this month endorsed the concept of man-made climate change — called Brown’s executive order “a pretty laudable goal” in a statement, while Newsom has yet to comment on it specifically.

“[H]e has long supported the 100% renewable energy goal for the state and has made it part of his gov platform,” Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said in an email. “And you will remember, when he was Mayor, San Francisco became the first city in America to set a 100% clean energy target.”

Advocates are hoping both candidates will elaborate on their views before the Nov. 6 election. The #CleanEconomyGovernor campaign was unsuccessful at getting both to participate in an event in San Diego next month.

“What someone says on a platform is one thing,” said Mike Mielke, senior vice president with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which includes Apple Inc., Google, Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. among its 360 member companies. “What someone says in a public forum in a give-and-take is another.”

Besides Mielke’s group, the campaign is backed by Cleantech San Diego, the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, the Sierra Business Council, Sustain Orange County, Advanced Energy Economy and Ceres.

Others are also wondering where Newsom will fall on a host of issues, including vehicle electrification and whether to form closer electric grid ties with neighboring states, as Brown has been advocating.

“What Gov. Newsom is going to do on environmental issues as governor, which I assume he will win, is very much an open question,” said Richard Frank, the director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at the University of California, Davis. “Those really haven’t been his issues.”

Newsom has signaled at least some desire for continuity by asking Mary Nichols, the long-serving chairwoman of the Air Resources Board, to stay on through the transition (Greenwire, Aug. 17).

“That shows a certain amount of wisdom or common sense,” Frank said. “She’s been terrific.”

The lack of debate so far likely reflects a tactical decision by Newsom to stay above the fray.

“From my experience, I think he’s playing his cards as if he’s a strong front-runner,” said Tim McRae, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s vice president for energy. “When you see people not engaging in debates and lots of reaching out … it’s because they don’t want to give even the facade that their competitor is equal in the running.”

But it also deprives observers of opportunities to tease out candidates’ stances.

“Being lieutenant governor doesn’t really have anything to do with being governor,” said Jon Costantino, a former staffer at the Air Resources Board who now advises businesses on compliance with the state’s climate policies. “To be the governor of California is a really big deal; the demographics of the state are dictating who’s going to be it, rather than policies.”

One specific clean technology program that may be particularly vulnerable to political winds — no matter who becomes governor — is the state’s high-speed rail project, which has begun construction under Brown. Under a deal Brown struck with lawmakers, the project currently receives a quarter of the proceeds from the cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases.

“I worry about his commitment to high-speed rail,” said Frank, who previously served on the project’s board of directors. “I worry that high-speed rail’s going to lose its most high-profile and effective advocate. I hope Gov. Newsom and his administration get behind it. … It’s a critical part of California’s economic and socio-economic future.”

The clean tech group, though, isn’t particularly wedded to high-speed rail. It points out that the transportation sector is undergoing multiple shifts that could change travel patterns, including the rise of shared-ride companies and development of autonomous vehicles.

“The fact we’re investing so much in that as the whole transportation system is going through a massive change, I don’t know,” Mielke said. “I don’t know how that sort of works together, frankly. [There are] other kinds of investments that would have a higher rate of return on emissions.”