Bay Area Democrats want to pass climate change laws. Can they deliver?

May 03, 2021

Now that Democrats have full control of Washington for the first time in a decade, Bay Area lawmakers want to make sure they don’t walk away empty-handed. For many of them, that means seeing green.

After several years of historically severe wildfires, heat waves and recurring drought conditions, bills related to climate change are at the top of the agenda for many lawmakers with local ties.

Some of the legislative proposals focus on energy issues, such as investing in electric vehicle charging stations and planning job transitions for fossil fuel workers. Others would address the threats of extreme weather by allocating more money to reduce wildfire risks, strengthen water infrastructure and upgrade the electric grid.The political calculus is fraught. On one hand, Bay Area lawmakers want to deliver tangible policy victories to their progressive-tilting base, which has been clamoring for a dramatic plan to stem climate change. But Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress are narrow, and they contain centrists who are hesitant to go as far as many on the left want — the prime example being West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who is friendlier to fossil fuels than most in his party.“I do expect that we are going to do something big. The only question is, will it be big enough?” said San Rafael Rep. Jared Huffman, a strong progressive on climate issues who is working to transition the country away from fossil fuels. “That’s what we’re going to figure out here in the next few months, but I’m optimistic.”The process is ramping up as legislators consider a $2 trillion infrastructure package outlined by President Biden that includes a heavy emphasis on energy and climate initiatives. But the infrastructure bill isn’t the only opportunity for major legislation to pass — annual items like appropriations and defense authorization bills could include environmental aspects as well.Here are three areas where the Bay Area lawmakers are considering changes that could have an impact locally.

Transitioning fossil fuel workers

Despite its strict environmental regulations and climate goals, California is still the nation’s seventh-largest producer of crude oil. Even in the deeply liberal Bay Area, thousands of people work in fossil fuel jobs, including at refineries in Contra Costa and Solano counties.Many of those workers are represented by Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who is trying to advance both the interests of the environment and his district’s economy. One of his new bills, HR 1817, would provide financial support for communities to develop plans to transition oil and gas workers into new jobs. Labor groups, oil and gas industry leaders and environmental justice advocates would all have seats at the table.“It’s about having a more serious conversation,” DeSaulnier said. “We’re not going to do what we did in West Virginia, and presume a coal miner can change jobs easily. ... We want to be respectful of how difficult it is, and also to make sure that they have good-paying jobs.”The California Legislature just saw how climate policies can collide with the interests of organized labor when a bill that would have banned fracking and other oil extraction methods died in committee, partly because of intense opposition from fossil fuel workers.Gov. Gavin Newsom responded with his own directive to stop issuing fracking permits by 2024 and plan for a phase-out of all oil production by 2045. As with the bill, Newsom’s announcement was met with swift opposition from petroleum groups, labor leaders and some politicians from communities dependent on oil-related businesses.“Particularly here in the Bay Area, we really need to get labor and the environmental movement on the same page,” DeSaulnier said.

Expanding climate resiliency and renewable energy

Biden’s plan calls for a lot of funding for climate resiliency, which could mean big money for Bay Area projects like fighting sea level rise at the airports in San Francisco and Oakland and rethinking troubled infrastructure like Highway 37, a crucial thoroughfare for North Bay motorists that often floods in the raining season.Democrats are also angling for new spending to support cars that don’t run on gasoline. DeSaulnier is carrying a bill that would allocate $3 billion for electric car charging stations and refueling stations for hydrogen-powered vehicles. That’s another priority for Biden, whose infrastructure plan calls for massive investments to move the country away from gas-powered cars. It’s also a top priority for California, which is planning to end the sale of gasoline-powered cars in 2035.“The investments in this bill, in charging infrastructure, are going to help California reach those goals, and help people who live in areas burdened by a lot of traffic pollution — people who live near ports or warehouses or just highways — breathe cleaner air,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.Sen. Alex Padilla, months after his appointment to the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris, is trying to deliver an early policy victory by getting Congress to back a massive investment in carbon-free school buses. In tandem with newly elected Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Padilla recently introduced a bill that would spend $25 billion over 10 years to replace hundreds of thousands of diesel-powered school buses with electric ones.

Preparing for wildfires and droughts

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said when she agreed last year not to seek the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee that she would focus her efforts instead on addressing California’s worsening wildfire and drought problems. Her office is working on legislation that would provide more money for fire prevention projects, revising a bill that failed to advance last year. She has already introduced a measure that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to restore three Central Valley canals, and her office is working on legislation to fund desalination projects and water storage infrastructure.Those legislative efforts come as most of California is in some level of drought, with state-declared emergencies in two counties and water restrictions already imposed in Marin County. Last year’s wildfire season saw more acres burn than in any other year on record, and this year’s dry conditions are setting the stage for more severe blazes in the coming months.“There are two issues that pose dire threats to California: drought and wildfires, and climate change is making both far more dangerous,” Feinstein said in a statement.Huffman noted that major investments in the electric grid could have a big impact on fire prevention, as sparking power lines have been responsible for several devastating blazes in recent years.

The infrastructure opportunity

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco will be key to the infrastructure bill’s development. Widely regarded as a master tactician and vote-counter, Pelosi can lose only two Democrats in the House to get a bill passed with her narrow majority and will have to craft the bill carefully to build the biggest coalition possible.“She’s in her element with this, and every indication I get from Speaker Pelosi is that she understands this is a once-in-a-generation, maybe once-in-a-lifetime moment for going big,” Huffman said.Rep. John Garamendi, a Walnut Grove Democrat who is one of the lawmakers leading the development of the bill, compared the impact of the bill to Americans’ pandemic-era appetite for jigsaw puzzles.“None of these pieces are new,” Garamendi said. “Each of these things are programs, policies that have been known and discussed, and many of them implemented over the last 50 years. ... This legislation puts all of those pieces together and creates a future in which we transition the 1900s infrastructure toward 21st century infrastructure.”


By:  Tal Kopan
Source: San Francisco Chronicle