Earth to California: Don’t Let Big Oil Write Climate Rules

Behind the fight over AB398

Jul 15, 2017 · 5 min read

We’re at a pivotal moment in California. We can all agree on the fierce urgency for California to lead the Trump resistance with real climate action. But we’re in an important battle over what kind of leadership that should be.

Incredibly, the California legislature is about to vote on a climate bill with provisions written by oil lobbyists specifically to kill critical climate action in our state.

Assembly Bill 398 is the result of a quick-and-dirty backroom deal Gov. Jerry Brown struck with Big Oil to extend California’s greenhouse gas cap-and-trade market to 2030.

In return for the cap-and-trade extension, Brown handed the industry its wish list of special favors and exemptions from California law.

Here’s why we’re at this juncture — and why the fight against AB 398 matters so much.

The current cap-and-trade program is one small part of the state’s plan to meet our greenhouse pollution reduction goals. It went into effect in 2013, amid warnings that the program would actually be less effective at cutting carbon than time-tested direct pollution reduction measures.

Environmental justice advocates also warned that the program would allow extreme toxic air pollution levels to continue or even increase in low-income communities of color already unfairly burdened by dirty air.

Experience has proven both concerns correct.

Local efforts to curb pollution in the San Francisco Bay Area show exactly what’s at stake in the AB 398 fight. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District recently proposed rules to cap CO2 emissions from local oil refineries.

The Air District proposed the local cap because the statewide cap-and-trade program has failed to produce any reductions in carbon emissions from Bay Area refineries and allowed health-damaging pollution in these overburdened communities to persist.

Without the cap, the air district concluded, Bay Area refinery CO2 emissions could actually continue to grow, despite the statewide program.

Important new analysis by the nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment shows why: Under the program, refineries have been able to produce extra gasoline for export to other countries. Without local action, the Bay Area could be turned into the gas station of the Pacific Rim.

The oil industry lobbied hard against the Bay Area cap, trying to kill it at the local level. And then, when Gov. Brown telegraphed he’d do essentially anything to extend the cap-and-trade system to 2030, the oil lobby was ready with its demands.

As a result, AB 398 would block not just the Bay Area, but all local air boards from setting urgently needed local rules to control carbon dioxide from oil refineries — or any other facility subject to the statewide cap-and-trade program.

The bill also blocks the state air board’s plan to develop a direct climate pollution reduction rule for refineries statewide. Under AB 398, the deeply flawed cap-and-trade program becomes the sole tool for addressing carbon dioxide from refineries.

Some argue that air-quality benefits supposedly provided by the proposed companion bill, AB 617, justify the rollbacks. But any such benefits are uncertain and don’t justify this deal.

What is certain: This bill would tie the hands of our state’s most successful pollution regulators, leading to less progress fighting climate disruption, dirtier air for communities already suffering an unfair burden, and vastly reduced public participation in the rule-setting process.

But that’s not all. The deal would also set a terrible precedent that will haunt us for years to come, even at the national and international levels. California’s actions, after all, are held up as a model for the next federal administration and governments around the world.

The bottom line: We need to get it right in California by adopting fair, effective programs that give us the deep, ambitious greenhouse cuts we need while also cleaning the air in communities suffering unfair toxic air pollution burdens.

But that won’t happen if we let the oil industry write California’s climate laws.

It’s important to note that Brown has chosen a bizarre moment to precipitate this crisis, given the current cap-and-trade program runs for over three more years.

The bill needs the vote of every single Democrat in both houses of the legislature and at least one Republican vote in the Assembly to achieve the necessary two-thirds vote. Brown is making passage a critical priority and, along with legislative leaders, is bringing intense pressure to obtain the votes. This puts legislators in a horrible position, because they also face an uprising of constituents outraged by this offensive bill.

Why would Brown do this? His public answer boils down to the fact that he believes that cap-and-trade is the only thing that can save us from the climate crisis because it will be cheaper and work better than other approaches, and his belief that polluting industries and their allies will eventually come to accept it.

We’ve heard these same assertions for two decades, and time and again, they’ve been proven wrong. Cap-and-trade is not going to provide us with some magical, easy way out. Gutting proven successful direct pollution reduction programs in order to get a 10-year extension of California’s deeply flawed cap-and-trade program is a losing strategy.

Once the air boards’ direct pollution reduction programs are eliminated, the oil industry will focus all its resources on killing cap-and-trade, too.

The climate crisis is the greatest challenge our society has ever faced. To solve it, we must address the deep political, economic, and social inequities that have caused it in the first place. We must work together to stop producing and using fossil fuels, and starting taking back political power from polluters.

We can solve the climate crisis, but a law written by the oil industry is a step in the wrong direction. That’s why so many people are demanding their legislators vote no on AB 398. It’s time to take on Big Oil, model real climate leadership, and protect all Californians from climate change and deadly air pollution.

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. More info at


Written by

Director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute.

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. More info at

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