REPORT ON THE 2020 CALIFORNIA LEGISLATIVE SESSION
The Greater SoCal 350 Legislative Committee is a coalition of 350.org affiliated groups and other allies in the Greater Southern California area that work together to get meaningful and effective climate legislation passed in the state, as well as to stop legislation with a negative environmental impact. Our membership comes from SoCal 350, 350 South Bay Los Angeles, Long Beach 350, Riverside 350, Conejo Valley 350, Ban SUP, 350 Ventura County Climate Hub, Indivisible South Bay Los Angeles, Indivisible Beach Cities, Indivisible San Pedro, the Indivisible CA Green Team, and Long Beach Alliance for Clean Energy. Since much of our membership lives in front line communities most directly impacted by the effects of climate change, we have made a conscious commitment that no less than 50% of our priority legislative work will focus on issues of environmental justice.
At the start of the 2019-2020 California Legislative Session, we chose AB 345 (2500 foot setback for oil and gas wells) and AB 1080/SB54 (Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act) as our priority bills. Going into the 2020 session – with the Democratic supermajority firmly in place – we were hopeful that both of these bills would pass. But perhaps inevitably, the COVID-19 pandemic which has cost so many lives and so many jobs thoroughly disrupted the legislative process as well.
There are a number of environmental and environmental justice organizations which provide yearly scorecards and other analysis, and these are fantastic resources. They primarily concentrate on scoring legislators based on bills which actually get to the floor for a final vote. But much of the success (and, unfortunately, more frequently the failure) of meaningful climate legislation is not determined on the floor, but behind the scenes, in committees or by committee chairs, who have power to determine if a bill is even heard for a vote. In 2020, the pandemic was used repeatedly as an excuse to prevent important pieces of environmental legislation ever coming out of committee.
OIL AND GAS EXTRACTION AND OPERATIONS
Oil and gas extraction and operation activities are a major source of toxic and hazardous air pollutants which cause increased risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, preterm births, high-risk pregnancies, and cancer. These activities are disproportionately located in communities of color and low incomes that are already experiencing high levels of air pollution. California is one of the few oil producing states that does not require any health and safety buffers between oil and gas operations and homes, schools, hospitals and other sensitive uses. In addition, corporations have too often been allowed to take advantage of bankruptcy procedures to simply walk away from failed wells, leaving behind a toxic legacy without paying for cleanup.
AB345 (Muratsuchi): CALGEM, the state oil and gas regulatory agency, has been charged by the Governor to design rules to protect residents and communities near oil and gas extraction sites. AB 345 would have required CALGEM to establish a minimum setback between hazardous and polluting oil and gas production facilities and sensitive uses such as schools, homes, and hospitals. The original bill specified a 2,500 foot setback but, after massive opposition by the fossil fuel industry and some labor organizations, was amended to require consideration of a setback, with 2500 feet suggested but not mandated. VISION, a coalition led by environmental justice groups, worked tirelessly on this bill. AB 345 did pass in the Assembly (despite No votes or abstentions by a number of Democratic lawmakers); but was killed in the Senate Natural Resources committee after a NO vote by every Republican committee member along with NO votes from three Democratic Senators: Anna Caballero, Bob Hertzberg and Ben Hueso. During the committee hearing, Senator Hertzberg went so far as to belittle the bill, its author, and the environmental justice advocates leading the drive to pass it. This type of attitude is one of the many reasons why California is lagging, not leading, in the fight to control the release of toxic greenhouse gases from oil and gas operations during a novel respiratory pandemic.
AB 3214 (Limon): One of the few bright spots in the legislative session was the passage of AB 3214, a bill which significantly increases the penalties for oil spills in California. AB 3214 managed to fly under the radar during a session when COVID was used as a reason to stop or delay almost every other good piece of environmental legislation. However, the passage of this bill does not make up for the refusal of our legislature to protect fence-line communities and as such, the session is still graded as a failure.
Our Grade: D-
The world is facing a significant plastics crisis. Less than 8% of plastics are recyclable, and product manufacturers produce, sell and distribute products and packaging made from plastic resins that are not recyclable. Our toxic trash finds its way to landfills, streams, the ocean, regions of the world like Malaysia and Indonesia, and into the bodies of fish and other animals. These plastics exist for hundreds of years and break into microplastics, with known health risks, including cancer and hormone disruption. We use thousands of plastics, sometimes only for seconds, without the manufacturer being responsible for the waste created by such use. While over 120 cities In California have banned polystyrene take-out containers and other single use plastics, we need state and federal legislation to bring accountability to our waste and the lack of recycling infrastructure.
AB 1080 / SB 54 (Allen/Gonzales) were twin bills focused on creating a linkage between single-use materials used in products and packaging, recycling infrastructure and markets to achieve 75% recycling by 2030. Both bills passed out of their respective houses in 2019 and either one could have been passed on the opposite side of the legislature. In 2020, there was heavy lobbying to stop these bills and, after intensive negotiations, amendments were made to appease opponents, including removing all but plastics from its scope and extending the enforcement period from two to five years. Despite having two years, the Senate did not pass AB 1080 until August 30, the day before the session was set to end. AB 1080 never made it back to the Assembly Floor. After waiting until the last minute, SB 54 failed in the Assembly by only 4 votes, in large part due to abstentions – even from Democratic Assembly members who had voted for the bill in 2019, many of whom had since taken campaign contributions from the plastic and oil industry.
AB 792 (Ting) which provides rules for proper labeling of recycled content of plastic did manage to pass.
Our Grade: F+
WILDLIFE AND WILDERNESS PROTECTIONS
California still has large areas of wildland, coastline and great biodiversity. As such, it should be a model and resource for wildlife and wilderness protection for the nation and the world. Several good bills were introduced; of these, only one was signed into law.
AB 3030 (Kalra) Resource Conservation: Land and Ocean Conservation Goals was the top wildlife/wilderness protection bill of the session. This bill would set a goal to protect at least 30 percent of California lands and coastal waters by 2030 to help safeguard clean air, clean drinking water and biodiversity. This is part of a coordinated global strategy called “Half Earth” which aims to protect half of the plant, including oceans, and preserve over 90% of species from extinction. At least 38 other countries are participating in this strategy. Environmentalists were pleased when AB 3030 passed the Assembly and two Senate committees. However, after opposition from boating, fishing and hunting groups, the bill was held in the Appropriations Suspense File by Committee Chair Senator Portantino. We are pleased that Governor Newsom stepped up to issue an executive order which would accomplish most of what was set forth in AB 3030, but actual legislation would have carried more weight.
SB 1175 (Stern) Similarly, SB 1175, which would outlaw wild animal importation, in particular, endangered species, passed both the Senate and Assembly but could not get through the Senate the second time. SB 1175, like many other important pieces of legislation, was simply never called to the Senate floor for a final vote on concurrence. These procedural failings were rampant in the 2020 session, as the Legislature repeatedly demonstrated a lack of commitment and courage to pass meaningful environmental legislation.
AB 1788 (Bloom) California Ecosystems Protection Act limits the use of rodenticides (aka rat poison) in California. While good, this bill was carefully worded to be unthreatening to agricultural interests, leaving room for “negotiation” by various special interest groups to weaken its effect.
Fortunately, certain bad bills were stopped. These include AB 235 (Mayes) which would have weakened the California Endangered Species Act, and SB 1090 (Bates) which would have weakened shoreline protection.
Our Final Grade: D
GREEN NEW DEAL AND JUST TRANSITION
As Bill McKibben notes, the Green New Deal is the first comprehensive and holistic attempt that does more than “nibble at the edges” of climate change and its root causes. As written, the GND would address the systemic changes needed to create a just, sustainable and equitable economy. There were a number of Green New Deal related bills introduced in the 2019-2020 legislative session; only one bill moved forward in 2020.
AB 1839 (Bonta): AB 1839 was introduced by Rob Bonta (and multiple co-authors) in January 2020 to establish “Green New Deal Council,” with particular focus on “enacting measures to ensure a ‘just transition’ for California workers impacted by the phase out of fossil fuels.” Although the bill had language about taking action to address climate change, it was, in our opinion, more properly titled a “Just Transition Bill” given its labor-centric focus. Although Just Transition is a goal of most, if not all, environmental organizations; it is only part of a comprehensive Green New Deal and should not be equated as such. Ultimately, without language to recognize and address the core causes of climate change, few environmental groups signed on in support.
To those legislators who introduced AB 1839, including Assembly Member Bonta, we offer a B- Grade, to recognize the well-intentioned efforts and the extensive work done to try to make this bill acceptable to environmental groups and affiliated stakeholders. However, it is not lost that, as was the case throughout 2020, the louder and more politically powerful voices of certain labor organizations were allowed to stymie meaningful environmental legislation. Bold action and courage is absolutely required by our Legislature to make the difficult decisions needed to address what is now a full-blown climate crisis. As our state faces catastrophic wildfires and other devastating effects of climate change, comprehensive and meaningful legislation must move forward which includes all of the planks of the GND, not just those select topics which may be more politically palatable.
To be clear, we believe that a Just Transition study bill, a Just Transition Task Force and meaningful work toward establishing how to ensure a Just Transition for workers who will be inevitably displaced from their jobs due to climate change (which will go beyond workers in the fossil fuel industry) is something our State Legislature should be addressing. This would go hand in hand with a comprehensive bill that advances a Green New Deal in California, beyond simply establishing a Council to discuss the concepts. The time for action is now.
Our Final Grade: D
California has long been at the forefront of transportation developments: the first limited access freeway (the 110 Freeway, 1940); hot rod culture in the ’50’s and ’60’s; the most restrictive vehicle emissions controls in the nation (’70’s); and is currently home to Tesla and numerous automotive design studios. Transportation accounts for a majority of greenhouse gas emissions and it is time for California to lead the way in emissions-free transportation and improved public transportation.
A number of worthy bills were introduced, largely related to electric vehicles. Of the bills listed below, five failed and two passed. The failure to pass these bills is mitigated by Governor Newsom’s executive action to end the sale of fossil fueled vehicles in California by 2035. But, the inability to get more bills passed through the process is still a failure of legislative governance.
General transportation: AB 1363 (Allen) was a comprehensive bill that would have created regional transportation plans with focus on sustainable communities, including walking, biking and public transportation, while taking account of local housing needs. It would have required regions to set vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) reduction targets. The bill was held in the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing and did not advance.
Electric vehicles: AB 841 (Ting) “School Energy Efficiency Stimulus Program” This bill will reduce greenhouse gases by enhancing school efficiency standards and requiring vehicle charging stations on campus. This bill was passed and signed by the governor.
AB 2145 (Ting) and AB 326 (Muratsuchi) would have created 1,000,000 EV Charging Ports and encouraged membership/leasing plans for EVs, respectively. AB 326 passed the Assembly on a 73-0-7 vote but got hung up on the Senate floor. AB 2145 never made it out of committee.
Public Transportation and related: AB 2176 (Holden) would require free transit passes to students attending community colleges and state universities, thereby encouraging public transportation and helping students. AB 2012 (Chu) would require free transit passes for seniors over 65. Both failed in the Assembly Committee on Transportation, chaired by Jim Frazier (D), even before the pandemic took effect.
SB 288 (Weiner) was passed and signed. It exempts certain rapid transit infrastructure projects (e.g., light rail, HOV lanes) and projects for pedestrian and bicycle facilities from CEQA requirements. Notably, there were other bills that would have weakened CEQA requirements; fortunately, these did not pass. We are concerned with a disturbing trend to weaken environmental protections even with “good” motives.
Our Final Grade: D
A microgrid is a self-sufficient energy system that serves a discrete geographic footprint, such as a college campus, hospital complex, business center, or neighborhood. Microgrids are critical to addressing energy reliability and promoting clean and local energy sources. One of the stated priorities for the 2020 Legislative session was addressing the effects of wildfires. Microgrids are an important tool to address this by providing decarbonized and decentralized backup power. There were a number of bills promoting Microgrids, most of which failed to move forward in 2020.
SB 1215 (Stern) was an important bill that would create the Local Government De-energization Event Resiliency Program. This would support state and local government efforts to set up microgrids to keep the power running in facilities that are needed for public safety and to protect vulnerable populations, such as people who have health issues requiring electrical equipment. After passing through the Senate, the bill was assigned to the Assembly Utility and Energy Committee. The Chair, Chris Holden, refused to allow the bill to be considered in committee because he deemed it not related to the 2020 legislative priorities. We could not disagree more.
OUR FINAL GRADE: F
The 2019-2020 Legislative session initially looked promising for bills related to Environmental Justice, as a number of good bills were passed and signed into law in 2019. The pandemic has had disproportionate impacts on low-income and communities of color, in particular those living near fossil fuel infrastructure and other stationary sources of air pollution. Yet, the Legislature failed to take meaningful action to address this, despite the opportunity to do so.
The “Green New Deal Council Bill” AB 1839 was the subject of a gut and amend in May 2020 to become the “COVID-19 Recovery Act.” The amended bill had admirable goals to ensure that recovery resources were prioritized to address historical patterns of racial and economic injustice and help create a just transition for a green, regenerative economy. AB1839 died in the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources without getting a hearing, on the spurious grounds it did not meet the criteria set for a limited legislative session due to the pandemic.
And as noted earlier, the highest priority bill for Environmental Justice, AB 345, died in committee as well.
OUR FINAL GRADE: F
We have highlighted just a few of the hundreds of bills which were introduced in our Legislature. Our biggest takeaway is disappointment. We believe environmental justice and the climate crisis should be non-partisan issues; unfortunately, the Republican party as a whole has all but abandoned environmental causes. Even so, the failures of the 2020 Legislative Session fall almost entirely on the super majority of Democrats in both the State Senate and Assembly.
The legislative session was drastically limited because of the COVID pandemic. Legislative leadership directed members to limit the number of bills and to prioritize four issues: addressing the pandemic, wildfires, housing and homelessness. These stated priorities were used repeatedly as an excuse to hold or vote “No” on important environmental bills, some of which would have helped address the inequity demonstrated by the pandemic itself. What source of infinite frustration is that the Legislature found time to take up a host of other bills that did not fall under the listed categories. (Of course, we appreciate and applaud legislative efforts to address issues of police brutality in this shortened session.) The Legislature also repeatedly used budget concerns as an excuse for not working on environmental issues.
For the few environmental bills that made it to the floor for a vote, we saw a number of Democratic legislators abstain from voting, even as they were present to advocate for their own pieces of legislation. Why did this happen? In all, this legislative session more than ever exposed the powerful influence of lobbyists on both sides of the aisle. Democratic legislators that style themselves as environmentalists or progressives showed their true colors by using COVID as a reason to refuse to take action, or to complain about environmental bills being brought forward at all. Paid lobbyists were able to be present in Sacramento, while local folks were relegated to remote Zoom meetings. We were told not to call offices to advocate for certain bills because the staff was dealing with COVID related emergencies. This meant more than ever that only those with “inside” connections were able to be heard.
It was almost impossible for advocates and “regular folks” to participate in committee hearings because of lack of access and technological limitations. Public comment during committee hearings was limited to phone calls – but phone systems often failed, public speaking time was limited, opponents were allowed to break in over public comment and many people waited hours only to never be heard, creating a false impression of lack of public support for important bills.
In 2020, we watched the California Legislature (and, in particular, the Democratic majority) cede much of its responsibilities. There were a few bright spots, and Governor Newsom took up matters the Legislature had refused to consider by issuing executive orders protecting public land (see AB3030) and ending sale of fossil fuelled vehicles by 2035. But there is significant danger in this method of governance. We need our Legislature to speak for us. We need our Legislature to provide strong direction – through settled law – to agencies which oversee environmental regulations. We need our Legislature to demonstrate a serious and sustained commitment to addressing climate change, decisively and nimbly, as we will continue to face more and greater crises. In the face of the climate catastrophe we see unfolding before us right now, what we need is ACTION.
We will continue to fight in 2021-2022. Please join us.