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Global warming: battle over California ballot initiative heats up

July 28, 2010 |  4:23 pm

The fight over California’s aggressive law to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other planet-heating pollutants is kicking into high gear.

Backers of Proposition 23, a November ballot initiative to suspend AB 32, California’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court Tuesday against Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown for what they called “false, misleading and unfair” language that would describe the measure on voters’ ballots.

Under the current description, the ballots, which must be printed by mid-August, would say that the measure “Suspends air pollution control laws requiring major polluters to report and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming until unemployment drops below specified level for full year.”

The Yes on Prop 23 campaign said in its court petition that the title and summary of the initiative, which was drafted by Brown’s office, should not refer to “air pollution control laws” because only AB 32, not other laws such as the Clean Air Act, would be affected. Nor should it refer to “major polluters,” the petition contended, because power plants and refineries are not the only institutions affected by the law, which also covers emissions from universities, agricultural facilities, municipal buildings and other private companies and citizens.

Brown, who is running for governor as the Democratic nominee, supports the law. His GOP opponent, Meg Whitman, says she would suspend the law for a year if she is elected.

Scientists say that carbon dioxide emissions from industry and transportation have begun to trap heat in Earth's atmosphere at dangerous levels. California is vulnerable to global warming, according to numerous studies, particularly because of the resulting sea level rise and the melting of mountain snow pack. Much of the state's population lives on the coast, and the state's large agricultural economy and cities depend on water from snow melt.

Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for the No on 23 campaign, called the lawsuit against the ballot language "a Hail Mary pass for a campaign that's circling the drain." He charged that "The two Texas oil companies bankrolling the Dirty Energy Proposition want to hide the fact from voters that they are two of the largest polluters in the state, and their intent is to kill California's job-creating clean air and energy standards."

More than three-quarters of the funding for the ballot initiative comes from oil companies, with the biggest contributions from Texas refining behemoths Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Inc. So far, the measure's proponents have raised more than $3.1 million.

The No campaign, officially called the Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs committee, got a major boost this week when Thomas Steyer, founder of the $20-billion San Francisco hedge fund, Farallon Capital Management LLC, pledged $5 million. He joined former Secretary of State George Shultz as co-chairman of the effort.

With the first half of the Steyer pledge paid, opponents have raised about $4.6 million.

“Proposition 23 really boils down to one thing,” Steyer said in a news release. “Do we want California to continue moving forward as a leader in a clean energy economy … or do we want to allow two Texas-based oil companies … to take our state backward and see the clean energy jobs, business and investment in our state go offshore to places like China?”

Backers of the proposition noted that investment firms which back solar and wind energy start-ups will benefit financially from the law -- and thus have an incentive to oppose the proposition. California has raised more capital for renewable energy firms than any state in the nation, in part due to its aggressive push under AB 32 to replace carbon-dioxide intensive industries such as refineries and power plants with renewable energy.

Jon Coupal, co-chair of the Yes on 23 campaign and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. which submitted the court petition, said the initiative "will save California families billions of dollars in higher energy costs and protect over a million jobs."

"Environmentalists are gearing up to battle Prop. 23. The National Resources Defense Council Action Fund this week posted a video in English and Spanish on YouTube of actor Edward James Olmos attacking the measure, in an effort to appeal to California's Latino voters. "Don't let polluters from Texas tell us how to live," Olmos warns in the one-and-a-half minute video.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Video: Actor Edward James Olmos in an NRDC video attacking California's Proposition 23, a ballot measure to suspend the state's global warming law.

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