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Will junkets corrupt California's climate regulators?

July 26, 2009 |  4:21 pm

Photo42 Two little-known nonprofits, heavily funded by energy, utility and financial companies, have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to take top officials from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration, as well as key legislators, on luxurious overseas trips with industry lobbyists, according to an investigation by Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee.

The in-depth report builds on disclosures, reported in The Times in 2007, of trips to Japan and Europe sponsored by the two nonprofits, the California Climate Action Registry (recently renamed the Climate Action Reserve) and the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a group set up by energy corporations with business before the state. Those trips were attended by 16 Schwarzenegger officials, regulators and state lawmakers.

By law, state officials are not allowed to accept gifts worth more than $420 a year. But corporations have exploited a loophole in ethics laws by funneling funding for the trips through the nonprofits.

Trips to Europe, South America, China and South Africa, detailed in the Bee, have come as the state is formulating regulations to slash carbon dioxide emissions that scientists say are causing the planet to heat to dangerous levels. Whether and how to design an emissions trading scheme to reduce the costs to be borne by power plants, refineries and other polluters has prompted intense lobbying by firms such as Chevron, Southern California Edison, mining giant BHP Billiton and Calpine, all of which contributed to the trips and sent their executives to join state officials at fancy hotels and private briefings, according to the Bee.

The California Climate Action Registry, or CCAR, was originally set up by the Legislature, and its board has included officials from Goldman Sachs, PG&E and Shell Oil, as well as two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club. Headed by Schwarzenegger's secretary for environmental protection, Linda Adams, it plays a key role in designing "offset" rules, by which polluters can avoid cutting their CO2 emissions by purchasing credits elsewhere.

According to the Bee, the registry used $60,000 in funds from Shell Oil, Occidental Petroleum, Sempra Energy, BP and other companies to pay for a 2007 "European Climate Policy Study Trip" for California regulators and legislators.

The Bee's investigation drew on memos, itineraries, receipts, office calendars and financial disclosure forms, some of them obtained through the California Public Records Act. Information on the trips, it noted, "is not spelled out clearly on any government website and there is no coordinated oversight." The Bee calculated that more than two dozen state officials had logged 700,000 air miles on the industry-sponsored trips since 2006, touching down in 17 nations and emitting 275,000 pounds of carbon dioxide through their air travel.

Will the investigation spark reforms? As many outraged commenters noted, California officials' junkets are nothing new. "What a coincidence that all of these 'fact finding' junkets coordinated by the CCAR are at desirable destinations," wrote one reader. ". . . Haven't any of these high-rolling officials heard of webinars and teleconferencing?" But another commenter asked, "Where's the evidence that the trip sponsors got any favors in return for their generosity? If the state paid for the trips, no one would go because they'd have to fly in the middle of the night on Elbonia Airlines, stay at Bedbugs Hotel, 50 miles away from the conference, and try to eat three meals on $5/day per diem."

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: California Environmental Protection Secretary Linda Adams in Poznan, Poland in 2008 where she attended an international climate negotiating meeting. She chairs the California Climate Action Registry which has come under scrutiny for sponsoring industry-funded trips for state officials. Credit: California Dept. of Environmental Protection