Cap and Trade: “Yes, this deal sucks, but we need to pass something. Anything.”
How well-meaning environmental groups wanted a climate-action pony so badly that they bought in to a crappy cap and trade deal that only an oil company executive could love… and boy, do they love it.
By RL Miller
Chair, California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus
Founder, Climate Hawks Vote
A horror story in three unnatural acts
Act One: The Plot
Opening Scene: A law firm office, April flowers blooming outside the window. Close up on a document showing what Western States Petroleum Association wants in any deal to extend cap and trade.
A smooth legal voice explains that Big Oil really wants to extend cap and trade (currently expiring in 2020) out to 2030: it’s good for California, it’s good for market certainty. All we ask for is:
- The ability to use up our free cap and trade allowances we’ve stockpiled over the last few years in the complicated auctions
- And we don’t want local air quality districts regulating us, that’s perfectly reasonable, isn’t it?
- And if the poor brown people complain about pollution we’ll throw them a bone – local monitoring of pollution other than greenhouse gases – and call it good.
Credits roll over a montage, as April turns into May and May turns into June. California Governor Jerry Brown says he’s negotiating with Big Oil. He says he’s negotiating with Republicans. But no one knows what he’s negotiating.
Scene 2: My computer. I receive three documents – Governor Office Proposals 1, 2, and 3 – all dated June 2017. A little while later, the original document – the lawyers’ Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) wish list dated April 2017, also shows up. My face blanches in horror as I realize that they’re exactly the same thing. Yes, the governor has been taking his cap and trade negotiating points on California’s signature climate change initiative from Big Oil.
Scene 3: The Capitol, Sacramento. Assemblymember Cristina Garcia assembles a letter stating principles for a “good” cap and trade extension:
- Local air quality districts’ right to regulate greenhouse gases must continue.
- The scams of free allowances and far off offsets need to end.
Twenty of her progressive Democratic colleagues ultimately sign on to the letter.
Scene 4: I write a petition asking Gov. Brown to stop taking his cap and trade negotiating points from Chevron that quickly reaches 10,000 signatures. In These Times and RedGREENandBlue also publish stories outlining the deal and the deeper history of Gov. Brown’s complicated relationship with Big Oil. The governor’s head explodes.
Fade out, with red flecks and bits of gray matter scattered all over the screen.
Act Two: The Bill
Scene 1: The Capitol. Jerry Brown, his head hastily put back together, vows to get the bill passed with Republican votes.
Cut to: My computer. Drafts dated July 1, July 3, and July 5 are leaked to me. All of the drafts keep the same points: free allowances, prohibition on local air quality district regulation. New side deals to attract Republicans emerge.
Scene 2: Back to the Capitol. Paid lobbyists for green groups, all white people, make the rounds. Each conversation starts: “Yes, this deal sucks, but we need to pass something. Anything.”
Just outside the Capitol, unpaid activists, brown and black and white people, look on in horror. The proposals keep a key tenet: a cap-and-trader can pay for offsets somewhere in the world. A rain forest in Brazil, an Arkansas rice farm – it’s all the same in global climate pollution; but it doesn’t clean up pollution at home.
What has happened to California Democrats who say they care about environmental justice???
Scene 3: Orange County. Jon Fleischman, a California Republican Party official and the editor of Breitbart California, rails against the cap and trade extension.
Scene 4: Stanford University. Earnest economists crunch numbers and realize that the oil companies have so many free allowances accumulated during the 2015-17 era that they will never reach the cap. And it’s highly likely with all that hot air, that the state will never reach its 2030 climate goal. But the Governor wants to pass something, anything.
Scene 5: My phone, late at night, almost every night.
- The governor is negotiating with industry but cutting out environmentalists!
- California chapter of national green group wants to oppose bill, but Brown calls national HQ and national HQ orders support!
- The bill is getting worse!
I track support and opposition. Ultimately, I help assemble a coalition of 65+ groups opposed to the bill – environmental justice advocates, climate groups, progressive groups. We all know that we cannot let the legislature approve a climate bill literally originating with a Big Oil wish list.
Meanwhile, 10 or so green groups, almost all of whom have paid lobbyists inside the Capitol and who have seen up close and personal the power of Big Oil, support the bill, repeating their mantra:
“It sucks, but we have to pass something, anything.”
Scene 6: The cap and trade bill is unveiled and given a number: AB 398. It violates every principle listed in the June 19 progressive Assembly Democrats’ letter. And it has new giveaways to electric utilities.
11 out of the Senate’s 13 Republicans sign on to a letter opposing AB 398, probably at the urging of Jon Fleischman. The bill needs 27 votes in the Senate; there are 27 Democrats and 13 Republicans. My state senator assures me, patronizingly, that the bill is dead so it’s ok if Dems vote for it, and don’t worry your pretty little head about market complexities, okay?
A weird hypnosis sets in at the Capitol. “Market certainty,” recite pro-AB 398 advocates. “Market mechanisms.” “The market works.”
Fade out to the sound of white zombies chanting “market, market, market” in unison.
Act Three: The Vote
Scene 1: The Capitol. Republicans unveil their final demand: a Constitutional amendment designed to wreak maximum mischief.
It needs voter approval in the June 2018 primary – in other words, it’s designed to drive Republican voters to the polls.
It will require cap and trade spending to get a two thirds legislative supermajority vote in 2024, long after Brown is out of office and in direct contravention of Proposition 25, a ballot initiative approved by the voters to require a simple majority, not a ⅔ supermajority, for spending.
Surely this demand goes too far? But Brown is fine with it, if that’s what it takes to pass something, anything.
“It sucks, but we have to pass something, anything.”
Scene 2: A hearing room. Brown makes a fiery, newsy speech, telling the legislators that climate change is a threat to organized human existence (true) and therefore they have to pass AB 398 (false). All eyes turn to two progressive Democratic Senators perceived to be in the “this bill sucks” camp. Will they, or won’t they? They vote for the bill, signaling to Democrats that they all need to fall in line. Indeed, one later declares that he believes in AB 398. The market, you know.
Scene 3: Outside the Capitol, the morning of the vote. Dueling press conferences – I speak at a press conference organized by Courage Campaign; pro-AB 398 groups hold a separate press conference.
Legislators tell me that they’re under immense pressure to pass this bill. “It sucks, but…” The French ambassador wants it passed! The market will fail if we don’t pass this bill! Other countries will back out of the Paris agreement if California doesn’t pass this bill!
Scene 4: The Senate passes the bill, 28-12. One Republican, bribed by last minute concessions to agriculture, crosses over.
The Assembly passes the bill, 55-21, with a few Republicans voting yes and a few progressive Democrats voting no. Thanks progressive hero Mark Stone! Thanks progressive champion Monique Limon! Thanks vulnerable Democrats Sabrina Cervantes and Sharon Quirk Silva! Donate $3.98 to express tangible thanks!
Brown and leaders congratulate each other. Sure enough, they’ve passed something, anything, and it sucks.
Accolades pour in for the governor’s negotiating skills from across the country and the world. Only those paying close attention to Capitol politics know that it’s yet another win for Big Oil.
Not the climate.
Not the lungs of California’s poorest communities.
Fade out: I drive past wildfires down I-5 into the smoky sunset as the credits roll.