Hot Air : Small solar and wind energy companies are opposing Prop. 7, which they fear would edge them out of the market.
Shades of Green
This election, voting the eco way isn't as obvious as it seems. Santa Cruz greenies weigh in on Props 7 and 10.
By Molly Zapp
Green may be the trendy hue of choice for the environmental movement, but it was first the color of money. Perhaps no one knows this better than T. Boone Pickens, the Texas billionaire whose natural gas company, Clean Energy Fuels Corporation, has donated more than $3 million in support of Proposition 10. Also known as the California Renewable Energy and Clean Alternative Fuel Act, Proposition 10 is a $9.8 billion bond initiative, the bulk of which would be used for rebates of up to $50,000 to consumers and companies who purchase a "dedicated clean alternative fuel vehicle," which is defined as vehicles that run on natural gas, biomethane, hydrogen or electricity. Read: not gas-electric hybrids.
Rebates for gas, diesel and gas-electric hybrids are available if the vehicle gets more than 45 miles per gallon, but the funding allotted for those is a fraction of the funding allotted to the vehicles that run on the other approved fuels. As electric cars and hydrogen and biomethane fuel sources are still in developmental stages, natural gas a la Pickens is the only significant viable fuel source that currently qualifies for billions of dollars' worth of rebates. Pickens' company and others like it stand to rake in millions of green if Prop. 10 passes.
As environmentally conscious as the initiative sounds, it faces opposition from nearly all mainstream environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, on top of opposition from the California Republican Party, the League of Women Voters and many Democrats. Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, vehemently opposes the proposition and estimates that fewer than 1 percent of Californians would get any benefit from the measure.
"It's not green," says Holober. "It's pretending to be green. People like Pickens have figured out, 'Hey, there's money to be made by draping yourself in green.' If the environmental movement is opposing it, that tells you something right there. This is not green; it's phony," Holober says.
But Fred Keeley, Santa Cruz County treasurer and the author of significant environmental legislation when he served in the state assembly, supports Proposition 10. Keeley says using the cleaner fuel of natural gas is better than using petroleum-based fuels, and that Prop. 10 will help with research and development on the "cleanest fuels."
That's because Proposition 10 also allows for part of the funds to be directed toward research and development of alternative fuels and a small amount of funds to be used to college grants to study alternative fuels. But 58 percent of the funds would go toward the rebates, which would be given on a first-come, first-served basis; the dollar amount available for all rebates is specific and finite. Newly purchased gas, diesel and hybrid cars that get more than 45 miles per gallon would qualify for $2,000-$4,000 in rebates, with enough money allotted for 107,000 new vehicles. Nearly half of the proposition's funds are specific to the "dedicated clean alternative fuel vehicles," especially commercial trucks. Natural gas vehicles would receive $10,000 to $50,000 in rebates. "Most of the benefits would go to interstate trucking companies," says Holober.
Only 120,000 natural gas vehicles are on the road today, and the rebate would provide a significant financial incentive for commercial business that use diesel trucks to switch to trucks that don't run on petroleum. Noting that commercial trucks can run for millions of high-polluting miles, Keeley supports the commercial incentives.
"I think it makes all kinds of sense to provide financial incentives to swap out dirty engines for cleaner engines immediately," Keeley says.
The proposition does not require that any dirty trucks be removed from the road in order for a company to obtain the rebate, nor does it require that the trucks stay in California.
Aldo Giacchino, head of the Santa Cruz Sierra Club, says that while Pickens' funding "is suspect," his organization opposes the proposition based on its merits, or lack thereof. Like petroleum, natural gas is a finite source, but unlike petroleum, few stations distribute natural gas for automobile fuel.
"The proposition would allow the issuance of long-term bonds to a technology that is not well-suited to automobiles, because the infrastructure is not there," Giacchino says. "But to create a new infrastructure for a source that is depletable, because natural gas will run out one day, is not a good expenditure of money. What's the sense into putting billions of dollars into something that's not going to be around in 20 to 30 years?"
Though it lacks the stench of special interest greed that wafts from Prop. 10, Proposition 7 is another green-sounding initiative with little support from environmental groups. The Solar and Clean Energy Act of 2008 would establish utility production standards that would require power companies to obtain 40 percent of their electricity from solar, wind, biomass and geothermal sources by 2020 and 50 percent by 2025. It would allow the development of solar and "clean energy" plants and facilities to be fast-tracked in the government approval process, and it would cap the annual increase in consumers' electricity bills at 3 percent.
"This is another example of where California can really lead the nation," says Robert Cruikshank, member of the Monterey County Progressive Democrats of America. "Al Gore is saying we need 100 percent renewables. If we're going to get to that point, we need the state to have aggressive policy goals to do that."
The primary funder in support of Proposition 7 is Peter Sperling, a billionaire from Arizona who has donated to a variety of environmental and other political causes. Utilities companies Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric have spent more than $27 million combined fighting the proposition. Supporters emphasize the state's need to accelerate its renewable energy programs, while opponents criticize the proposition for being poorly written and unclear. As on Proposition 10, most environmental groups and the Consumer Federation of California oppose Prop. 7, but Holober chooses gentler words describing the initiative: "The difference is that it's well-intended--a billionaire who wants to do a cleanup initiative," he says. "It's misguided."
Giacchino says the proposition is "confusing" and "not well-written."
"The Sierra Club and several other organizations think the way that the language is written, it will make it difficult for utility companies under 30 megawatts to operate," Giacchino says. " A lot of municipal utilities produce less than 30 megawatts, and it's not clear what Prop. 7 would do to [them]. Exploring alternative energies on the local level is good--that's one of the problems with Prop. 7." Giacchino also fears the provision that allows for plans for new clean energy plants to be fast-tracked could lessen the oversight and weaken the environmental protections necessary before building could take place.
Cruikshank says there are aspects of the proposition that "could have been clarified for everybody's benefit," but he doesn't think small-scale producers will be hurt by the initiative. He opines that opposing environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the League of Conservation voters are "skeptical" of the proposition because the measure was largely drafted before they were asked to be involved. Ultimately, he sees the benefits of increased renewable energy outweighing the ambiguity within some of the wording.
"This is a risk worth taking," Cruikshank says. "The status quo is not something we could live with."
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