Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on Oil Check Northwest.
Last week, after intense lobbying from the oil industry, California legislators killed part of a bill that would have set a landmark goal of decreasing statewide petroleum use by 50 percent by 2030. After millions of dollars of furious Big Oil lobbying, legislators dropped the petroleum requirement from the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act (SB 350). While the bill’s other monumental goals of increasing building efficiency by 50 percent and increasing renewables’ share of the state’s energy to 50 percent remain intact, the oil lobby won this battle.
However, Governor Jerry Brown insists the war is not over: “I am more determined than ever,” he stated in a press conference announcing the bill’s changes. He plans to spend his remaining three years in office making meaningful progress on climate change. Under his leadership, California has been a model for the rest of the world on climate legislation and has even led other subnational provinces and states to join its carbon trading market.
Led by the Western State Petroleum Association (WSPA), the oil industry has fought California’s clean energy efforts tooth and nail. They know that if California shows what a clean energy economy can look like, their doomsday warnings won’t hold water. “If California can do this, it could really be the beginning of the snowball,” said Tim O’Connor, director of California policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. “This is how California can really shake up the national conversation on climate.”
Here in the Northwest, Oregon and Washington are both looking to put a price on carbon pollution. But make no mistake, the oil industry will do everything they can to stop it. The Golden State’s battles to pass climate legislation have given us a glimpse of what to expect. Here are the arguments oil companies will use, right out of their California playbook.
Oil Lobby Myth #1: A “hidden gas tax” will make prices skyrocket, hurting the poorest residents.
This is the oil companies’ favorite threat. In an attack ad brought to you by the innocuous-sounding California Drivers Alliance, a cute kid warns viewers that “the huge hidden gas tax” is here and drivers need to sign the petition to stop it! Except the California Drivers Alliance isn’t a group of well-meaning citizens. It’s nothing more than an astroturf group “brought to you by WSPA” (their website’s “about” page speaks for itself). The video below is just one of dozens of slick ads the group produced to try to incite Californians against the state’s ambitious clean energy goals. These are the same arguments, paid for by the same WSPA oil money, and peddled by the same astroturf messengers, that the oil lobby trotted out earlier this year as it tried to wriggle out of California’s cap-and-trade program that started regulating the oil sector on January 1, 2015.
Despite oil’s dirty scare tactics, the actual cost of regulating pollution from the oil sector was lost in the noise of volatile gas prices. According to Berkeley Business School professor Severin Borenstein, an expert in local gas prices, there’s “little proof pump prices were affected by cap and trade.” California started regulating pollution, and gas prices increased by just pennies on the dollar, an almost unregisterable blip.
“The Northwest is looking to put a price on carbon pollution. But make no mistake; the oil industry will do everything they can to stop it.”
The real culprit behind local gas price increases is the industry itself. 2015 saw massive upsurges directly attributed to refinery explosions and the mistreatment and subsequent strikes of oil workers. WSPA wants to scare voters into staying strapped into the roller coaster of volatile dirty fuel prices. But the truth is once we have more and better options for transportation—electric vehicles, low emission fuels, and better public transit, to name a few—we’ll break free of fossil fuels’ monopoly, and we will be able to step off the ride into a cleaner, more stable economy.
Oil Lobby Myth #2: Climate laws will force us to ration gasoline.
WSPA’s ad calls the bill the “California Gas Restriction Act of 2015” and warns that it is about “regulators restricting how far we can drive by rationing gas.”
The bill is plainly not about rationing gas.
From the Sacramento Bee’s Fact Check on the ad:
First, the legislation is not called the California Gas Restriction Act of 2015. And while there is no law prohibiting the Air Resources Board from rationing fuel, Senate Bill 350 says nothing about the issue. The bill does not include new authority for the ARB to ration gas or to impose surcharges on older vehicles.
The legislature didn’t spell out what the clean air agency should do to achieve the 50 percent pollution reduction target, but this was to give Californians a suite of options to achieve the goal. The bill itself gives the state freedom to choose what option will work best as it develops. But just because the bill leaves room for choice doesn’t mean the state can do anything it wants.
No one believes rationing is the best solution to this problem. The state has not implemented harsh penalties to reach its previous goals, and there’s no reason they’d start now. Instead, California will likely pursue the same winning strategies it has successfully implemented thus far: more efficient vehicles, cleaner fuels (including electricity), and better land use planning to enable more people to get around via public transit, walking, biking, and ride-sharing.
Expect WSPA to stir these same fears of fuel rationing when the Northwest makes its next move to reduce pollution.
Oil Lobby Myth #3: The government will track your driving and fine you for using your car!
Another WSPA-sponsored video and accompanying radio ad claimed that the state would “digitally track and record your driving” and issue individual penalties.
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This one is just nonsense.
California does not expect to achieve a 50 percent reduction in fuel use through such intrusive and ineffective means as monitoring individual drivers.
The Sacramento Bee Fact Check explained where this wild accusation may have originated:
The ARB (air resource board) has long required onboard diagnostic equipment to monitor emission control components on cars and trucks, and it is now considering expanding the kind of data collected to measure fuel consumption.
But it would be voluntary for drivers to participate, according to the ARB, and data could be stored without identifying individual vehicles or owners. The proposal does not mention citations or penalties such as the ad claims could be imposed. (Emphasis mine.)
Outlandish as it sounds, WSPA might also try to convince Cascadians that any attempt to transition to clean energy means Big Brother tracking individual driving habits and issuing penalties. Just as in California, these will just be scare tactics to try to prevent the Northwest from breaking oil companies’ stranglehold on our economy.
Adrienne Alvord, California and Western states director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, sums up the situation nicely: “the simple truth that explains all of WSPA’s lies about SB 350 is that the legislation, while good for people, is bad for oil companies.”
Cleaner air, more options for transportation, and a healthier climate are things we all want. But this means breaking up oil’s long-standing monopoly on how we get from A to B. Oil companies already have an army of front groups and astroturf organizations primed to spread their false choice arguments. But the Northwest is set to take a big step on our path to a clean energy economy. Let’s make sure we’re ready for it when they inevitably spend big to try to thwart us.
After all, we’ve already got their playbook.
Nick Abraham — Editor, Oil Check Northwest
It is however true that we Americans should reduce mileage driven to reduce carbon emissions. For environmentalists to pretend this will not change our lifestyle is also untrue. We need to work closer to home, share the ride and make good recreational opportunities available near the cities by restoring urban and suburban ecosystems.