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Voters reject Prop 23

By Daniel Bohm | 2 Nov 2010

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Staff writers Alexandra Wexler, Allison McCann, Jason Carter and Doug Ray contributed to this story.

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California voters soundly rejected a ballot initiative that would have suspended a state climate-change law.  Proposition 23 would have put the Global Warming Act of 2006 on hold until the state’s unemployment rate dropped below 5.5 percent. Opponents consider the vote a win for California environmental advocates.

In Palo Alto, the "Raging Grannies" sang at CREDO Action Network, celebrating the defeat of Proposition 23. (Photo: Allison McCann)

After all the ballots were counted opponents had received 61 percent of the vote.

The election wasn’t all positive for California environmentalists; voters also passed Proposition 26, which will make it more difficult to enforce the global warming law. This proposition requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature before violators can be fined. Previously, only a simple majority was required.

“We won big and we lost one,” said Bruce Mirken, Media Relations Coordinator for The Greenlining Institute, one of the groups that fought Prop 23. “I’m not surprised” about Prop 23. “We thought we were going to defeat it.  We saw polling moving in the right directions in the communities we were focusing on and in the communities of color in the state.

“On the other hand,” he added, “Prop 26 passing is really disturbing.”

Prop 23 supporters, including many from the oil industry, have argued that it would stimulate California’s economy. Its defeat left them worried about how it will effect Californians.

“It would save California from high energy costs and save the state one million jobs,” said Anita Mangels, communication director for Yes on 23. “Clearly [Californians] will see electric prices go up, they will see natural gas prices go up. Prices of everything they use in their daily lives, including food, will go up.”

Mangels believed Prop 23 would replace “a global warming law that doesn’t do anything.”

California voters disagreed. The proposition’s opponents said it would increase pollution. “Proposition 23 is a model to follow for the rest of the country in taking climate action and moving towards clean energy and clean technology,” said John Armstrong of the CREDO Action Network at a party celebrating the proposition’s defeat. “It’s very sad we aren’t winning Prop 26, but it doesn’t set quite the precedent and won’t be viewed quite as importantly as Prop 23.”

Californians living near oil refineries have been among the proposition’s biggest opponents.

“You know when you smell them that you’re in trouble,” said Rose Duarte, a resident of Wilmington, Calif., who lives just blocks from both Valero Energy Corporation and Tesoro Corporation refineries. “You know when you smell the rotten eggs that that’s how much more poison stuff is coming out.”

“You know when you smell them that you’re in trouble,” said Rose Duarte, a resident of Wilmington, Calif., who lives just blocks from both Valero Energy

Corporation and Tesoro Corporation refineries.  “You know when you smell the rotten eggs that that’s how much more poison stuff is coming out.”

For Duarte and other residents of lower-income neighborhoods in California, the state’s Global Warming Act of 2006, otherwise known as AB 32, represents hope for the future.  Their neighborhoods are often the hardest-hit with air pollution because of their proximity to oil refineries.

“AB 32 would reduce pollutants that these communities breathe on a 24-hour basis,” said Alicia Rivera, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment.

However, the one committee registered with the California Secretary of State as being in favor of the Proposition, Yes on 23, preferred to make a different pitch, calling Proposition 23 a “jobs initiative” bill.

“Let’s delay AB 32,” said Bill Day, the manager of corporate communications for Valero. “We think that this is exactly the wrong time for the state to implement costly new measures.  It would drive up prices of diesel, gasoline, and electricity, and people just really can’t support that right now.”

Other gas and oil companies doing business in the state seem to share this opinion.  In fact, almost all of the donations made to Yes on 23 came from oil companies such as Valero and Tesoro.

Seventeen committees opposing Prop 23 registered with the California Secretary of State.  Together they raised more than $31 million.  Yes on 23 raised $10 million.

“You can tell something about a ballot initiative by who’s supporting it and who’s against it,” said Bruce Mirken, the media relations coordinator for The Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, Calif.  “Support for Prop 23 comes from oil companies.  Opposition is coming from the American Lung Association.”

Nevertheless, there will be sizeable increases in cost of electricity, diesel, and gas once AB 32 is implemented, Day said.  However, many Californians seem willing to pay that cost, for cleaner air.

“While we’ve made some progress in California in improving air pollution, our dependence on fossil fuels has kept us from having clean and healthy air,” Mirken said.  “If Prop 23 passes, it will sentence millions of Californians to breathing dirty air for generations.”

Additionally, environmentalists were concerned that the suspension of AB 32 would mean the loss of jobs from clean tech companies which might have relocated elsewhere.  Ironically, the Yes on 23 committee claimed that that’s exactly what they didn’t want to happen — to take more jobs away from Californians.

“I think the way [Prop 23 supporters] have been spinning it is utterly bogus and dishonest,” Mirken asserted.  “The small kernel of truth is every time you do something as significant as switching from fossil fuels to clean energy, old jobs go away and some new jobs are created.  Inevitably that’s going to be bumpy for a few people.”

Day maintains that companies in support of Prop 23, like Valero, are extremely disappointed with the rhetoric of the other side: “We know that California’s economy can be strong again, and we don’t understand why opponents of Prop 23 can’t believe in it too,” he said.  “There’s no benefit to AB 32 as far as its impact on global warming and climate change.  California can’t do anything on its own in terms of climate change.  So, why are we doing this now?”

Even amidst all the debate, Tuesday was an important moment for climate legislation.

While oil companies continued to champion their initiative, Spencer Olson head field organizer for the local No on Prop 23 campaign run by CREDO Action in Palo Alto hoped to send a message with Tuesday’s vote.

“It’s really important that we not only defeat [Prop 23],” Olson said, “but we crush it to send a strong message to the rest of the country that we want climate action now.”

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