A Personal View of Climate Change in the Bay Area

Ruby MacDonald shares her view of key elements of climate change in our area.

Writing Perfect Law(s) Isn’t Easy

AB32 put California firmly on the path to reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels in the fight against global warming and its deleterious effects.  Enacted in 2006, AB32 requires reduction of GHG to 1990 levels by 2020.  First enacted on this journey was the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), established in 2002 and accelerated in 2006 and 2011.  In addition, a cap-and-trade program was introduced in 2012 to enable emissions producers to purchase the balance of their incrementally decreasing GHG emissions as “credits” from other producers–proceeds to fund the aims of AB32.  One of the drawbacks to this strategy for reducing carbon in the atmosphere in California is the need to allow the purchase of credits from producers out-of-state, as well as in-state, so that carbon reduction may not always occur in California.

Although cap-and-trade may not be ideal, it does put a “price on carbon”.  In fact, every strategy for reducing carbon in the atmosphere is likely to have its own drawback(s).  Another example is the Net Energy Metering (NEM) program promoting use of solar panels by residential consumers of electricity.  AB32 allowed 5% of a utility’s users of electricity to purchase or lease solar panels and generate for themselves “free” electricity measured on two-way meters.  In order to compensate utilities for the added expense of upkeep of transmission lines and facilities for all consumers, AB327, the successor to AB32, mandates additional fixed costs to be paid by everyone.  To reduce the hardship of this regressive system on low income ratepayers, a two-tiered system of monthly charges of $5 for low income consumers and $10 for all others was written into AB327.  Concern for low income or CARE consumers qualifying for “California Alternate Rates for Energy” has been a core principle of AB32 and AB327, but debate continues as to whether this system will provide the fair, equitable and fossil-free supply of electricity needed to combat global warming and climate change.

Administration of Laws Isn’t Easy Either

As expected from the sizable impact of changes portended by AB32, AB327 and related laws, their administration and regulation have been problematic.  Although AB32 and AB327 designated the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to be the lead regulatory agency, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) also has a high profile, since it sets rates and policies affecting investor-owned electricity and gas utilities (IOUs) and adjudicates their compliance.  A more circumscribed, but also critical, role of setting and enforcing limits on GHG emission from stationery and certain mobile sources is played by local Air Boards, such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD).  These agencies occasionally receive pushback from energy users, energy producing companies and their trade organizations.  For example, memories of the San Bruno explosion and fire in 2010 were reawakened in the public mind when e-mails indicating improper relations between CPUC administrators and PG&E executives came to light this year.  Public outcry led to the firing of three PG&E executives, demotion of a CPUC administrator and the decision of Michael Peevey, President of the CPUC Board of Commissioners for 12 years, to forego another term.  Hopefully, Governor Brown will appoint and the State Senate will confirm CPUC commissioner(s) who will vigorously pursue the regulatory mandate of the CPUC so crucial to the success of AB32 and AB327.  Another disaster could occur during the increased transport of volatile crude oil or “extreme” crude under unsafe conditions to refineries in California.  Most aspects of railroad operation are federally controlled and, therefore, supersede state and local regulations.  Nevertheless, cities such as Berkeley, Richmond, Benicia and San Jose on their own initiative have sought the help of the State Attorney General, BAAQMD, CPUC, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) in blocking rail transport of “extreme” crude through their areas.  When lawsuits to that end were unsuccessful, the Richmond City Council recently asked BAAQMD to revoke its permit to the energy company Kinder Morgan for a project involving rail transport of crude oil from Fresno to Richmond because 1) the permit was obtained without a public hearing and 2) Richmond emergency responders lack the highly specialized equipment for this task.  BAAQMD now faces the dilemma that whatever its action, Kinder Morgan or the City of Richmond could bring suit against it.

Outlook on Fighting Global Warming and Climate Change

Growing public acceptance of the reality of global warming and climate change in the last several years has fueled the cause of climate action, although vocal deniers do remain.  Nevertheless, data on the AB327 website indicate that GHG reduction is occurring, even as California’s GDP is growing.  Yet, if global warming and climate change must be opposed because human–as well as nonhuman lives–are at stake, the foot-dragging of climate action resisters cannot simply be ignored.  Energy researchers like Professors Dan Kammen of UC Berkeley and Mark Jacobson of Stanford have modeled plausible scenarios of reducing GHG by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 and proposed strategies for advancing these scenarios.  Professor Kammen has emphasized that an effective and moral approach to reducing GHG emissions must 1) involve all stakeholders, including business interests, 2) foster coalitions with other governments advancing similar agendas and 3) focus on carbon reduction to the extent that each organization and department thereof retain a carbon reduction officer.  In addition, successful climate action will need citizen activists like LWVBAE members to educate and mobilize others in the community to ensure that government agencies, business interests and the financial sector, in the words of Professor Jacobson, “keep their eyes on the ball.”


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