“This was retail politics and oil lost,” was how Adrienne Alvord of Union of Concerned Scientists summed up the stunning environmental victory Tuesday in the California legislature, a victory which cemented the state’s commitment to a 40 percent reduction in climate pollution by 2030.
Only a few weeks ago there was a strong consensus that the oil industry, by spending millions of dollars on behalf of a cadre of moderate Democrats in the Assembly, had blocked just such a doubling down on the state’s existing 2020 goals. For the oil industry, victory was an existential necessity. Only by holding future climate commitments hostage could the industry hope to get Gov. Brown to abandon the state’s existing mandate that by 2020 the carbon content of fuels be cut by 10 percent. As a practical matter, the requirement means roughly 20 percent of California’s more vehicles will be driving on something other than oil—electricity, natural gas or biofuels.
And oil knows it cannot withstand a competitive transportation fuels market. Once California creates such a market and builds businesses that can produce low carbon fuels at scale, fuels competition will go global and oil’s empire will wither. But it looked like oil had survived to fight another day. Gov. Brown had signaled his next move by forming a ballot committee for a (high-risk) initiative for the fall of 2018. But a small group of climate and environmental justice advocates refused to let the Assembly moderates off the hook. Demanding a vote, they re-energized their broad coalition of main-line businesses, EJ advocates, labor, climate greens, the faith community, clean tech and clean fuels businesses, local government and public health advocates.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told them he would give them a vote once they had the votes—and on Tuesday he pulled the trigger, giving the oil industry, which thought it had won, only 24 hours to regroup. It wasn’t enough and the Assembly passed SB32 by 47 votes, a six vote margin over the 41 needed. The California Nurses Association was heard from, but so was Ebay. Gov. Brown and the White House weighed in, but a lone Republican, Assemblywoman Catherine Baker joined them in supporting progress. Wednesday the Senate concurred and the bill, linked to an environmental justice focused companion bill, went to the governor for his signature.
Why the victory? Quite simply, retail politics. Clean energy now provides far more stimulus and creates far more jobs than fossil fuels. Clean power is seen by the public as the linch-pin of the state’s economic future. Jobs on the ground trump oil industry ads on the screen. It’s not accidental that states providing climate leadership are the states with the biggest clean energy sectors—California, Washington, Nevada, Oregon—and Iowa, with its nation leading wind sector and a public utility, Mid-America, that is planning to shortly hit 85 percent renewables and go on to 100 percent.
And it’s cheaper.
The oil industry is in a state of shock. Their press release bizarrely asserted that Rendon had scheduled the vote to “cover up” the fact that the state’s latest auction for carbon emission permits had attracted few buyers—a result oil called “terrible.” The auction simply reflected the fact that emitters, uncertain if the law would be extended past 2020, did not know how many permits they needed to buy. The oil industry conceded as much, saying “Today’s miserable auction result reflects the market’s lack of certainty.” But it is revealing that oil called it “terrible” and “miserable” that the cost of carbon permits was low—demonstrating again that what they fear is not that decarbonizing will cost too much and hurt the economy, but that it will prove irresistibly cheap and strand them. Also revealing—SB32 was written precisely to provide the certainty whose absence the oil industry allegedly deplores!
(In fact, the legislature is going home next week and Rendon had to bring the bill up more or less when he did. The short notice was tactical—but hardly conspiratorial).
Ideological, right-wing opponents of climate progress and clean energy stayed more on message,releasing a poll purporting to show that the public, all the other evidence to the contrary, didn’t really favor tougher clean-up of carbon pollution or California climate leadership after all.
Read carefully, however, the poll says something quite different. It confirms that most Californians want to move forward on clean energy and climate, believe that such progress is good for California even if others do not lead and want action. Even California Republicans are part of this consensus. Sixty-two percent of California Republican voters think that climate change is either a very serious or somewhat serious threat to the state. Again, of Republicans, 67 percent expect the changes resulting from global warming to occur in their lifetimes. A majority favor the state’s current climate goals and a plurality favor the longer-term, more ambitious goals just passed.
It is true that, if nudged to believe that after such action, “hundreds of local manufacturing facilities would be shut down and thousands of middle-class jobs would be lost in California” large majorities of Republicans, and Democrats and Independents, lose their appetite. But if you said to the same sample that ambitious climate progress would mean “continued economic growth, an end to air pollution, cheaper gas and billions of dollars of new exports for California industries” the supportive numbers among Republicans would probably jump from a plurality to a super-majority. The latter statement is the true one, it turns out—and, more or less, it is what most California voters are experiencing—which explains why, un-manipulated, even Republicans are happy that the state continues to move forward.
But California is not the only arena where oil’s long regime is coming to an end. Investors are watching warily as the majors—Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell have now accumulated an unprecedented $184 billion in debt, fallen far short ($40 billion short in the first half of 2016) of their promised goals of paying their dividends from profits, not borrowing. Shell, Chevron, Exxon and BP have all seen their previous platinum grade credit ratings cut a notch. To placate investors, the majors pledge that they have new (but far from transparent) business plans to someday make money again—if only oil will stay at some magic level. For BP it’s $50-55/barrel. Unfortunately, it has not been in that range since 2014.
Many of the independent oil producers, of course, have gone bankrupt. Oil remains stubbornly below $50. Most independent analysts believe that for the oil majors, prices in the $75 range are required to compete with Persian Gulf and other OPEC members in the long term. And those prices, unequivocally, require one thing: a continuation of oil’s monopoly in transportation fuel.
California this week called the question. That monopoly is going away. Oil has lost before, but never because the retail politics of its competitors proved more compelling. This was no decisive battle. There may be none, just as there is no moment when the fate of the Roman Empire was sealed.
But the sands of time are running. Oil’s empire is in its decline and fall.
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