Interview With Out-Going Climate Champion, State Senator Fran Pavley

The author of the Global Warming Solutions Act looks back, and forward, on climate change

Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) addresses the media after the passage of S.B. 32 in August. She’s flanked by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), Governor Jerry Brown, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, from left. Image courtesy Fran Pavley’s office.
Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) addresses the media after the passage of S.B. 32 in August. She’s flanked by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), Governor Jerry Brown, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, from left. Image courtesy Fran Pavley’s office.

Senator Fran Pavley is one of the members of the California legislature who will, with the end of the 2015-2016 session next week, bring a close to her tenure there. Pavley served for six years in the Assembly and six years in the Senate, where she worked hard to find consensus on environmental and climate change policies.

Pavley had a very successful career in the legislature, passing numerous bills on issues ranging from the environment and energy efficiency to education and women’s health. Among her biggest—and most famous—accomplishments is A.B. 32, California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, which created targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and set the stage for the state’s cap-and-trade system. She also wrote a followup bill, S.B. 32, which extended those targets beyond the fast-approaching original deadline of 2020. In addition, Pavley headed up a successful fight to win the unprecedented right for California to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, and she wrote a bill that could help California finally create a rational, sustainable groundwater management policy.

Streetsblog talked with Senator Pavley about some of her accomplishments recently. There was a lot more we could have talked about, but we had to cut the conversation short so she could deliver a speech. The conversation below has been edited for length.

Senator Pavley started by talking about her groundwater management bill, because, she said, “It doesn’t get as much attention as all the climate things.” With a growing population—“We are at 39 million people, moving probably in the next ten to fifteen years up to 50 million people”—California can’t afford to ignore the problems inherent in its historical approach to water rights. “Water supply is certainly part of the discussion on how you strategically plan for that growth, along with transit along with other kinds of necessities.”

Besides, S.B. 1168 was, she said, one of the toughest bills she’d worked on. “It was complicated,” said Pavley, “and it wouldn’t have passed without a couple of things going on. One was record drought: 125 of our 515 basins were in severe overdraft, and in a drought sixty percent of California’s water supply comes from groundwater.”

“Right now we have too many basins where whoever can drill the deepest well gets the water. People literally—especially small farmers or lower income people—have been left high and dry, with the state of California providing huge containers of water, trucking them to their homes. It’s just amazing,” she said.

The extreme conditions meant that people were more than willing to talk about solutions, and she was able to pass a bill that requires severely overdrafted basins to create a plan to manage their groundwater. “That means some kind of adjudicatory process to determine what is each property owner’s underlying fair share of groundwater,” which could give rise to a more rational way of working out water ownership in the state than the historical first-come-first-served approach.

“All these are part of what you might refer to as Smart Growth,” said Pavley. “They are interconnected, and ideally, policies like S.B. 375, transit oriented development policies, housing and mixed-use should include not only energy conservation measures but water conservation measures.”

“We’re still perhaps operating too much in silos—water separate from transit separate from energy. We really need to create a model of sustainability throughout all these cross sectors.”

California has set itself up to be a model in many ways for the rest of the country and the world. With A.B. 32, and now S.B. 32, Pavley and the legislature have created flexible climate change policies that are achieving emission reduction goals, producing revenue that contributes to other state goals while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, encouraging innovation, and creating a forum for an ongoing public discussion of how best to tackle climate change.

In terms of investment in innovation in the clean tech and energy sector, said Pavley, “sixty percent of all the money coming in for clean technology and energy efficiency is coming to California because of our policies. Companies will tell me directly, ‘we wouldn’t be here without those policies.’”

One of the genius moves by Pavley was writing the original Global Warming Solutions Act A.B. 32 to be flexible. “It gave the authority to the California Air Resources Board to adopt market-based mechanisms” to achieve the reduction targets, she said. “And the specific word was it ‘may’ adopt market-based mechanisms. The argument in the building was whether it should be shall, and I insisted on the word may. That was a big discussion with the Schwarzenegger administration.”

Senator Fran Pavley testifies at a hearing on the future of A.B. 32 in 2014.

“Until you were able to really scrutinize how cap and trade would work, and look at some of the challenges that faced Europe to be successful, it seemed to me we needed to spend some time really studying that. CARB did so, holding a lot of stakeholder meetings about how to move forward.” Those stakeholder meetings are ongoing, and continue to raise questions about how best to meet the goals.

“The most important part of cap and trade in my mind is the cap—putting a cap on emissions and rolling them back sends a clear market signal” that pollution costs everyone. “We put a price on carbon, on the major emitters [of greenhouse gas emissions]. If they can’t make the emissions reductions required, they will have to purchase allowances, or in simplistic terms: they have to pay to pollute. So what do you do with that money? The money then becomes part of our revenue stream to reduce emissions that they cannot reduce.”

“That money does not go into the general fund. The money has to be expended to reduce emissions—and that’s how transportation benefits. Almost a third of all the cap and trade money goes to benefit transportation and transit—for which there wouldn’t be another source of revenue.”

Not only has the program been successful in terms of reducing emissions, “it’s filling the unmet needs of many policies and programs that would not have another source of funding for those programs. …When we passed S.B. 32, which was conjoined with A.B. 197, part of the discussion was how to make sure that climate policies are benefiting all communities—not just someone who owns a solar company, but also to benefit lower income neighborhoods. Whether that means providing bus passes, or weatherization for multi-dwelling units, or something else–there’s a long list of programs. We’ll be experimenting in the next few years with the concept of Transformational Communities, with individual communities deciding what is their highest priority.”

“But here’s the legal challenge: these programs have to be able to quantify GHG reduction. That’s the goal—not to just to pass out money for very nice or important projects, but to accomplish the emission reductions.”

Is cap-and-trade the best way forward? Is it enough, given the challenges facing California and the world?

“Cap and trade has worked fairly successfully in California,” said Pavley. “That doesn’t mean that if nationally there is a different approach that it couldn’t be blended into that.”

“It’s been very frustrating, being in California. When we passed A.B. 32, we thought it would just be a year or two until there was a national policy. The U.S. emits 25 percent of all the global emissions out there, I believe. And it’s the highest per capita in the [world]. Now California is just one of the fifty states. Are we doing our fair share? Well—we’ll continue to build on our successes in a thoughtful way.”

“I’m not a huge proponent of just increasing the prices on everyone’s energy and everyone’s gasoline as the way to getting reductions,” said Pavley. “I’m trying to be more thoughtful, so it doesn’t have the unintended consequences of hurting middle income and lower income Californians.”

“For example, in many parts of California—I know in parts of my district—people have enough money to put solar panels on their roofs, and they’ve purchased electric cars. They are now essentially off the grid, not going to the gas station and not paying utility bills. I would like to see that kind of distributed generation available to all income groups. So the biggest challenge in the future will be: How do you do that?”

“By being off the grid you are not subject to the volatility of energy or gas prices. It’s amazing. It’s one facet of your life that doesn’t have the dramatic ups and downs of price. So how do you transfer that to existing multi-dwelling units, for example, or for people on fixed income, whether they’re seniors or people with low income, so that energy prices and fuel prices don’t have a disproportionate share of their income?”

Will clean cars be enough? Can Californians just keep on driving in solo vehicles, and still meet climate goals?

“Electric cars are just one of many solutions. Transit is number one,” said Pavley. She talked about L.A.’s recent passage of Measure M, which will greatly expand transit, “but we’re barely keeping up with the growing population. That’s part of the challenge. The other challenge we’ve always had in Los Angeles is that we were allowed to grow with no urban design to it. And trying to purchase property under eminent domain to put in transit lines is extremely expensive and controversial.” The challenge is how to maximize the existing right-of-ways for all users.

“Traffic continues to get worse, even though we are seeing, really, a renaissance in the last thirty years in L.A. We are making inroads; we’re not perfect.” Also, “we’re trying to do several things in Los Angeles, not only move people around but also clean up the air.”

The smog in L.A. during the ’50s and ’60s was famously bad, and anyone who grew up there remembers days of brown haze and sore throats. “One of our big success stories,” said Pavley, was cleaning that up. “That’s because of things like regulating unleaded gas and catalytic converters—there’s a long, long list.”

Because California had already started to regulate smog in the 1960s, state rules predated the federal Clean Air Act. That means that California is the only state that can pass more stringent tailpipe emission standards than the federal government—although other states are allowed to adopt California standards if they wish.

In 2002 the legislature passed Pavley’s bill A.B. 1493, the Clean Car Law, which regulates greenhouse gas emissions in passenger cars and light duty trucks. “That law passed, and it was very controversial. All the oil companies, automobile manufacturers, car dealers, the Chamber of Commerce—all opposed the bill,” said Pavley. “The automobile dealers and manufacturers filed a suit, not only in California but several other states that adopted our tailpipe standards. They were arguing that this was an end-run around fuel efficiency, but their main concern was that they preferred a national policy rather than a state-by-state policy. They didn’t want to create one cleaner car for California and a different vehicle for, let’s say, Wyoming.”

“President Bush was in office, and for the first time ever California’s waiver was denied. Fast forward to 2009, President Obama comes in, and he directs the Environmental Protection Agency to revisit California’s waiver for the Clean Car Law. He also said that the federal EPA, which can regulate fuel efficiency standards, would work with the department of transportation.”

“So California’s tailpipe emission law—the first one ever to deal with greenhouse gas emissions out of tailpipes—is now combined with the national policy on fuel efficiency standards. The fuel efficiency standards had not been raised for 26 years, and now the goal was that by 2026 the fleet average for fuel efficiency would be about 54 miles per gallon, so for every big SUV that Ford sold they’ve have to make it up with electric cars or other fuel efficient cars.”

Which raises the question of what will happen under the incoming administration.

“With the Trump administration, and what may or may not happen with EPA, we’re somewhat nervous,” said Pavley, but, at least in California, some things would be hard to change. “We do have a preemption in statute that we don’t think will change. Most of the people that have supported the president-elect believe very strongly in states’ prerogative or states’ rights. This is one of California’s, predating the Clean Air Act. All of these are in statutes through the EPA. It won’t be easy to undo, and we think California’s law is protective.”

“Whether the federal government wants to regulate fuel efficiency or wants to weaken current regulations” —or, in line with a recent letter sent to the federal government by the automobile manufacturers, to delay the new fuel efficiency standards past 2026. “It’s a challenge right now, because the price of gasoline is lower now than it was five years ago. People are buying small-sized SUVs instead of fuel-efficient cars, or hydrogen-powered cars, or fuel cell cars, or plug-in hybrid cars.”

“We’re going to have to ramp that up. In California it really accomplishes two things: it reduces energy consumption—and you’re right that we don’t have coal in our state, and we stopped all out-of-state contracts for coal—but we do have oil. Petroleum is our major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. We continue to find a way to incentivize the purchase of cleaner cars, to clean up the air and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Senator Pavley will be succeeded by Senator-elect Henry Stern, her Senior Policy Advisor for years. Stern worked on energy and climate issues in the Senate and in the private sector.

As for what’s next for her, she is “still weighing things,” with a few interviews lined up. “I’m just trying to relax for the next couple of weeks and make an informed decision,” she said. “I will continue to work on water and clean energy policies—but not full-time, and not being gone Monday through Thursday like I have been for the last fourteen years.”