Commentary: Are oil companies retreating from Calif. climate change rollback

Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)

A few months ago, Assemblyman Dan Logue predicted that the ballot fight to roll back California's global warming law would be "like nothing we have ever seen before."

It is turning out to be one for the ages, but not quite like Logue imagined. It may be one of the most ill-conceived measures ever.

The Chico-area Republican thought the ballot measure he was promoting, Proposition 23, would become a donnybrook, with tens of millions getting spent by both sides. Last week, the Yes-on-23 campaign went dark, with no ads on television.

"The private sector is spread thin," Logue explained last week. "Resources have diminished more than we thought."

Heading into the final two weeks before the Nov. 2 election, the main funders, Texas-based Valero and Tesoro oil companies, seem to have concluded it makes no sense to throw more of their oil-stained millions at the bad idea.

Yes-on-23 strategist Rick Claussen told me last week that there would be no final push unless backers came through with $10 million fast. The week came and went without an infusion.

Opponents wary that money could flow in the final days are not letting up. As they near their fundraising goal of $20 million, they hope to drive a stake into Proposition 23, proving that, at least in this state, voters take global warming seriously.

"We want to crush them," said Steve Maviglio, the No-on-23 campaign's spokesman. "We want to send a message loud and clear across the United States, right to Capitol Hill."

With a few exceptions, California businesses have shunned Proposition 23.

But some corporations are making a separate play, spending $7 million in recent days to promote Proposition 26, a measure that could appeal to voters angry with government by making it harder for legislators to raise fees.

As it is, lawmakers must muster a two-thirds majority to raise income or sales taxes. But they can impose fees by a simple majority vote, as long as the fees are intended to cover the costs of whatever program they fund.

Proposition 26 would change that requirement. If voters approve the measure, legislators and local officials would need to muster a two-thirds vote before imposing fees.

Chevron, which has stayed out of the Proposition 23 fight, has given $2.75 million to help pass Proposition 26, making it the single biggest corporate giver to the measure.

Philip Morris, the world's largest cigarette maker, kicked in $750,000 to support Proposition 26, and oil giant ConocoPhillips and Anheuser-Busch Cos., the beer manufacturer chipped in $500,000 each.

Environmentalists are beginning to shift attention to Proposition 26, fearing it could gut programs they hold dear, and restrict the state from raising money needed to implement AB 32, the global warming law targeted by Valero and Tesoro with Proposition 23.

"The environment is on the chopping block," said Warner Chabot, chief executive of California League of Conservation Voters. "Proposition 23 kills our climate law. Proposition 26 strangles it over a longer period of time."

At the start of the summer, there was virtually no talk of Proposition 26, the fee initiative. All attention was focused on Proposition 23, the measure to roll back the climate change law.

Throughout the summer, polls showed Proposition 23 was in trouble. The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico didn't help.

The California Republican Party has endorsed Proposition 23. But the Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, opposes Proposition 23, further drying up support.

More than $7 million of the $8.3 million raised for Proposition 23 has come from Texas- and Kansas-based oil companies, plus a secretive nonprofit corporation in the coal state of Missouri that refuses to disclose the source of its money.

The $8 million supporting Proposition 23 may seem like a lot. It's not. The oil industry spent $92 million four years ago to defeat an initiative that sought to raise taxes on oil pumped from California.

By contrast, most of the $19 million raised to defeat Proposition 23 has come from California environmentalists and venture capitalists who see a future in new energy technology.

Google executives have given $50,000. Tesla Motors, building a new generation of electric vehicles in Fremont, and Bloom Energy Corp., the Silicon Valley startup featured on "60 Minutes" for its fuel-cell Bloom Boxes, each gave $25,000.

The Texans may wish they had never entered the fight. They face shareholder protests for using corporate money for the campaign, and have incurred the wrath of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed the climate change law they seek to overturn and he sees as fundamental to his legacy.

The governor has denounced Valero and Tesoro as "greedy" Texas oil companies, prompting chief executive officers of the companies to complain in an open letter that Schwarzenegger was demonizing their fine companies.

You have to wonder what these out-of-state companies were thinking when they decided to campaign against a California law. Did they expect to be welcomed as heroes? Logue, meanwhile, hopes that there's at least a little money for radio time, and maybe a few robo-calls. He shouldn't count on it.

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