George Boardman: Not everybody in California can afford the Democrats’ green revolution
Observations from the center stripe: About time edition
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It is starting to occur to some of our elected decision makers that the effort to counter global warming by turning California green is creating a real economic burden for middle- and working-class families.
I’m talking about Democratic decision makers, 21 of them members of the California Assembly who joined Republicans in the recently concluded legislative session to kill a mandatory cut in state greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
They also forced Gov. Jerry Brown to scrap a measure that would give the state Air Resources Board authority to reduce statewide gasoline consumption by half by 2030.
Supporters of the legislation, SB 350 and SB 32, portrayed the defeat as a victory for the oil lobby. “It is beyond understatement to call this a missed opportunity,” bemoaned the Sacramento Bee in an editorial. “We are disgusted by the influence of oil money on the Capitol.”
Brown concurred in that analysis, and vowed to use regulation to achieve the same goals. “We don’t have a declaration in statute, but we have absolutely the same authority,” he said.
While big oil spent big money to defeat these measures, it’s too facile to blame the outcome on the usual suspects. Many of the Democrats who opposed the measure have real concerns about the financial burden their constituents would have to bear.
“One of the implications probably would have been higher gas prices,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper, one of 11 black and Latino Democrats who blocked the measures. “Who does it impact the most? The middle class and low-income folks.”
Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced conceded “we have to take aggressive action on climate change,” but wants to “make sure the Valley is not put at a disadvantage” while people in “Palo Alto are driving around in Teslas.”
Maybe Gray had in mind recent research published by the UC Berkley Haas School of Business Energy Institute that concluded the tax credits, rebates and other incentives the federal and state governments offer to reduce emissions of carbon and other pollutants go mostly to the affluent.
The study, co-authored by leading UC energy expert Severin Borenstein, focused on federal subsidies. “We find that these tax expenditures have gone predominantly to higher-income Americans,” the report said. “The bottom three income quintiles have received about 10 percent of all credits, while the top quintile received about 60 percent.”
The “most extreme example,” according to the report, is the subsidy offered to electric vehicle buyers, with those in the top quintile receiving about 90 percent of the credits. Some 80 percent of the beneficiaries live in the Bay Area and Los Angeles regions compared to 2 percent in the San Joaquin Valley.
If you buy a Tesla (minimum price: $75,000) in California, you can get a $7,500 federal income tax credit and a “$2,500 (state) rebate and carpool lane access.” There’s a state-by-state breakdown on Tesla’s website.
State Senator Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, proposed earlier this year to eliminate state tax credits for cars costing more than $40,000. “It’s hard for the average Californian to understand why someone buying a $100,000 car should get a rebate,” he said. As the saying goes, the measure was DOA.
But electric car rebates aren’t an issue for most Californians. They’re most concerned about paying for our specially blended gasoline that is the most expensive in the contiguous 48 states, not to mention increasingly expensive electricity.
California has enacted a 33 percent renewable electricity mandate. Solar energy has increased more than 10-fold and wind has nearly doubled since 2011, but our electricity rates have increased 2.18 cents per kilowatt hour — four times the national average. That may not seem like a lot to somebody who drives a Tesla, but it is to the average resident of the Central Valley who is trying to keep his family cool in the summer and the lights on in the winter.
SB 32 was designed to achieve the goal of cutting the state’s carbon-dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050, “80 by 50” as it’s known by Democratic Party leaders. In 2009, President Barack Obama said he was setting “a goal for our nation that we can reduce our carbon pollution by more than 80 percent by 2050.”
But what does that really mean for you and me? Here’s Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute: “Residents of California are responsible for (per capita carbon-dioxide emissions of) 9.42 tons a year. Assuming the state’s population doesn’t increase, an 80 percent cut means the average Californian would be emitting 1.88 tons by 2050.
That puts us on an equal footing with residents of North Korea, who were responsible for 1.83 tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, according to the International Energy Agency. Their per capita income is $1,800 a year.
How are we going to achieve these goals? Wind and solar energy can’t provide the enormous amount of energy we need at prices we can afford, a point conceded by James Hansen, one of the country’s best-known climate scientists. “Renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Nuclear energy is doing more to cut carbon-dioxide emissions than any other form of energy, but that’s a political non-starter for Democratic politicians and their environmental allies.
Most Americans agree we need to do more to clean up the environment, but it can’t be done in a way that will increase the financial burden for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
If the Democrats don’t moderate their approach, they risk driving a large part of their core constituency into the Republican Party. Talk about irony.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.
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