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Billionaire Environmentalism: A Portrait of California State Senator Robert Hertzberg

Bob “Huggy” Hertzberg has taken nearly $250,000 from the fossil fuel industry. He pretends to be an environmentalist.

Markets change. We transform… Is it difficult? Are there going to be transitions from the old model to the new? Oh, yes. Tell that to people at the Pony Express or the telegraph. Welcome to America, baby.

Bob Hertzberg, 2015, on clean energy in California

By some measures, you might think California State Senator Bob Hertzberg is a decent legislator. His voting record has high scores from environmental organizations, teachers unions, and labor groups. He co-authored the landmark 2017 California Money Bail Reform Act. In the time between his terms in the State Assembly and State Senate he started a solar panel company, becoming a “global clean-energy entrepreneur” and winning multiple awards. Colleagues describe him as gregarious, smart, and engaged.

So why did he vote against a bill, supported by over 100 environmental justice groups, to protect Californians living near fossil fuel extraction and storage sites? And why did he direct an insulting ad hominem attack against a longtime frontline activist during discussion of the bill?

To those who know his record a little better, it can’t have been a big shock. The man is the embodiment of “liberal” California politics: posturing as a champion of the people, while proffering “solutions” that are in line with the profit-oriented fantasies of the investor class. A career of feverish elbow-rubbing with the upper stratosphere of wealth and power has stripped away any residue of democratic impulse. He’s not shy about making it known, either: Bob knows best.

And maybe the nearly $250,000 he’s taken from the fossil fuel industry had something to do with it, too.

California State Assembly Bill 345: What Happened

I get it. I’ve been involved in this movement my whole life… I’ve spent my whole life working in the environmental space in various iterations, in countries that are poor and have huge challenges. It’s in my heart, it’s what I’m about.

— Bob Hertzberg, August 5, 2020, on environmental justice

Senator Hertzberg’s rhetorical support for the spirit of the bill was an all-too-familiar gaslighting tactic commonly directed at women and advocates of color.

— Katie Valenzuela, August 6, 2020, in response to Hertzberg

On August 5, Hertzberg voted against AB 345. The bill would require the state to implement safety measures on oil and gas operations, including a minimum setback distance from homes, schools, and other sensitive locations, by 2022. A minimum setback would protect millions of Californians from the health impacts of toxic oil and gas sites (asthma, cancer, reproductive issues, and more) and also curb California’s production of climate-destroying fossil fuels. For years, environmental justice groups have been fighting for a setback law. But the bill failed to pass, with a 5–4 vote, in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water.

During a speech on the Senate floor, Hertzberg accused supporters of the bill of negligence and irrationality, implying that they didn’t really understand the bill. He particularly targeted Katie Valenzuela, Political and Policy Director at the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “I am tired of bills that just push people’s buttons and push people’s nerves… Do the homework. Do the homework. Read the bill. Double check everything,” he said. (He later privately apologized to Valenzuela.)

Ironically, Hertzberg’s reading of the bill was completely wrong. He argued that California was already implementing everything laid out in the bill, and better. “They’re doing it. There’s no need for us to spend taxpayer dollars when you have an administration that’s evidenced this extraordinary interest in this issue and is moving at breakneck speed,” he said.

A couple things wrong with that: first, they’re not doing it. Under mounting pressure, Governor Newsom’s office issued a press release in November 2019, addressing the public health impacts of fossil fuel operations. It said that the Geologic Energy Management Division(CalGEM) would “consider a range of protective measures, including prohibiting oil and gas activities within close proximity of homes, schools, hospitals, and parks,” after consulting with experts and holding open community meetings. AB 345, on the other hand, does not just consider a setback for oil and gas activities, but requires one: “This bill would require the division to, on or before July 1, 2022, adopt regulations to establish a minimum setback distance between oil and gas production and related operations activities and sensitive receptors.”¹ Hertzberg repeatedly claimed that the bill’s language was weaker than the Governor’s announced plans. This is obviously false.

Additionally, AB 345 has a concrete deadline, whereas Newsom’s plan is vague and non-binding. The “extraordinary interest” that Hertzberg cited has also been noticeably absent. California environmental regulatory agencies are notoriously submissive to industry, whatever California’s progressive pretensions. Governor Newsom, after touting his commitment to aggressive climate policies, approved thousands of new oil wells and fracking sites. Despite promising residents that he would shut down the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, he continues to evade and delay action. Newsom has proven extremely deft at political prevarication.

AB 345 would also “create an environmental justice program within the Natural Resources Agency to identify and address any gaps in existing programs, policies, or activities that may impede the achievement of environmental justice.” Hertzberg chided activists for supporting such a measure since Governor Newsom’s 2020–2021 budget included money for the position of Assistant Secretary for Environmental Justice. Aside from the fact that these things are not the same, Hertzberg at the same time failed to mention that Newsom’s budget also cut 94 percent of money going to the California Environmental Protection Agency general fund. Hertzberg told the bill’s supporters, “They’re on the job. So if you want to make sure equity occurs, it’s happening now.”

On how to achieve equity, Bob knows best.

The Democratic Party: You’re Not Invited

It’s clear that Hertzberg is an armchair environmentalist, to put it charitably.

It may stem from the fact that he’s quite a wealthy guy. He owns more than $1 million in stock of Palogix International, a shipping logistics company for which he serves as Chairman of the Board. He previously sat on the board of the software company VoicePlate, owning more than $1 million of stock. He has worked as a big time attorney at multiple law firms, and until 2017 still received a salary in excess of $100,000 from one of them, Glaser Weil, while serving in the State Senate.

Hertzberg’s friends are even richer. Records show that he attended a dinner paid for by billionaire Eli Broad at a private residence in 2018, and another dinner paid for by billionaire Gary Winnick in 2019. He has been personally gifted a bottle of wine by billionaire and environmental villain Stewart Resnick, spirits by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, cigars by Gary Winnick (recall: billionaire), and a card game by billionaire Reid Hoffman.

In 2019, he attended a dinner — at a private residence — paid for by federal convict and former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, about one year before Baca began his three year prison sentence. (Not a billionaire, but WTF.)

Hertzberg is also well-connected with neoliberal think tanks. He has attended at least three dinner events at the Milken Institute, an economic think tank founded in 1991 by the billionaire financier Michael Milken — just after the end of Milken’s prison sentence for securities and tax violations. Hertzberg also regularly attends events at the Berggruen Institute, another think tank founded by the billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen, focused on market-oriented approaches to global issues. The Institute paid for Hertzberg to take a $6,600 trip to China in 2019.

From where he sits on the top rung, Hertzberg’s top-down approach to policy should come as no surprise.

The Wonk Life

Herzberg is known for being a policy nut. Beginning in 2009, he served as the co-chair of California Forward, succeeding Obama’s spymaster Leon Panetta.

In 2010, Hertzberg worked on a project sponsored by the Berggruen Institute called the Think Long Committee for California. The group produced a report subtitled Rebooting California’s Democracy: Leaving Gridlock Behind with a Bipartisan Path to the Future. Hertzberg’s affinity for “bipartisanship” is well-known — he was a close advisor to Arnold Schwarzenegger during the Governator’s time in office and continues to tout bipartisan efforts.

The 13 members of the Think Long Committee were: Bob HertzbergLaura Tyson, former economic advisor to Bill Clinton; George Schultz, former Secretary of State under Reagan; Terry Semel, former CEO of Yahoo!; Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google; Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State under George W. Bush; Gerry Parsky, Chairman of Aurora Capital; Antonia Hernandez, CEO of the California Community Foundation; Ronald George, former Chief Justice of California; Matthew Fong, former California State Treasurer; Maria Elena Durazo, former Secretary-Treasurer of the LA Federation of Labor; Gray Davis, former Governor of California; Willie Brown, former Mayor of San Francisco; Eli Broad, billionaire; David Bonderman, billionaire; Nicolas Berggruen, billionaire.

The first two recommendations of the report were:

  1. Create a positive business environment for job creation.
  2. Reduce the personal income tax across the board while retaining California’s progressive tax structure.

Hertzberg was one of three leaders of the tax working group, which suggested cutting income taxes across all brackets and cutting the corporate tax rate to “make it competitive with other states and foster an improved business climate.” They suggested a new tax on services (which is regressive by nature) to offset the tax cuts, but gave little indication of what the overall consequences would be. During 2010, the committee met with both current Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and past-and-future Governor Jerry Brown, but the tax prescriptions never came to pass. Schwarzenegger had tried to push a similar plan in 2009 without success. In 2015, Hertzberg again tried to introduce the same reforms with his Upward Mobility Act. No luck.

The report suggested various other business-friendly policies. One that sticks out in the current context:

California also should create “plug and play” economic zones that are pre-approved for CEQA and other land-use and zoning permits. Working with local zoning authorities, the state initially should target high-unemployment areas such as the Central Valley and the Inland Empire to enable businesses to open, expand and cluster as soon as possible.

The Central Valley is home to the vast majority of fracking sites in California and, thus, experiences fracking’s worst health impacts. Both Governors Brown and Newsom have approved thousands of new drilling permits across the state.

Senator Robert Hertzberg, a man with gray hair and glasses, stands posed in a suit with his arms crossed across his chest.
Portrait of Senator Robert Hertzberg (via Wikimedia Commons)

Billionaire Environmentalism

Hertzberg’s rich-guy approach to environmentalism is also reflected in his connections with bullshit environmental organizations. These aren’t quite astroturf groups — organizations run by business interests that pretend to be grassroots. Rather, they are supposed to be “pragmatic,” comprised of fossil fuel industry reps, pro-fossil fuel union heads, and feckless Big Green types. Everyone gets a seat at the table.

In December 2018, Hertzberg traveled to the COP24 climate conference in Poland, a trip paid for by an $8,500 gift from Climate Action Reserve, a “pioneer in carbon accounting and the most experienced, trusted and efficient offset registry to serve the carbon markets.” Carbon offsets are mechanisms that essentially allow corporations to “pay to pollute,” creating a carbon market, and commodifying greenhouse gas emissions. The approach is championed by the fossil fuel industry and universally denounced by climate activists.

While in Poland, Hertzberg ate a $113 dinner paid for by Google, as one does.

In 2017, Hertzberg attended an event hosted by NextGen Climate Action, billionaire Tom Steyer’s organization. He is also a regular attendee and speaker at Verdexchange, an annual conference where politicians, regulators, and utilities representatives get together to discuss toothless energy and water system reforms. SoCalGas is a major sponsor of these conferences. In 2018, he participated in the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, hosted by former Governor and climate fraud Jerry Brown, an event which was protested by climate activists.

A Case Study

Hertzberg — and he is certainly not alone among California legislators — participates in events run by the California Foundation on the Environment and Economy (CFEE). Though the group is a 40-year staple in California environmental policy, its role remains obscure except to the select few who are invited to its policy discussions. Its board of directors includes many corporate executives, including from fossil fuel companies like Chevron, Shell, and Aera Energy.

Every year, the board members pay out of pocket to send California legislators on trips to visit sustainability projects in other countries. Hertzberg led the group’s nine day trip to Switzerland and France in 2019. He was paid $11,683. The trip included a tour of a “power-to-gas” project in France, a new technology that uses excess renewable energy to produce hydrogen gas through electrolysis. SoCalGas is currently promoting this technology to create “renewable natural gas” — which, despite its name, is just natural gas.

Hertzberg also attended CFEE’s annual conference on energy in 2019 at the swanky Silverado Resort in Napa. The event was centered around California’s 2045 decarbonization goals. After a noon buffet at the “Vintner’s Court,” participants attended various sessions with encouraging titles like “Striking the Right Balance: What is the Oil and Gas Industry’s Role in a Carbon Neutral Future?” Panelists discussed tough questions like “What does ‘Keep it in the Ground’ actually mean?” More substantive questions were also addressed — of course, from the perspective of fossil fuel industry representatives and useless careerists from the Big Green and state regulatory spheres.

After the day’s proceedings, attendees were instructed to “meet in front of [the] main mansion” in order to catch a shuttle “departing at 6:00pm for the Black Stallion Winery.”

Follow the Donors

Hertzberg has taken over $228,000 from fossil fuel and dirty energy companies across his four runs for Assembly and Senate — $137,000 just in his 2014 and 2018 races. He signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge in January 2018, then immediately violated it, taking at least $21,000 from the fossil fuel industry that year during his reelection campaign. In his current run for State Controller (2022), he continues to accept fossil fuel money.

Many people affected by the 2015 Aliso Canyon disaster live in Hertzberg’s district. In 2016, Hertzberg authored SB 380 along with Senator Fran Pavely, which required SoCalGas to conduct extensive safety tests before Aliso Canyon could resume operations. Less than a month after the legislation was signed into law, Hertzberg received a $1,000 donation from Sempra Energy, the owner of SoCalGas. Since then, Hertzberg has received at least $6,800 from Sempra. In total, he has taken more than $18,500 from Sempra over his career.

In March 2019, Hertzberg attended a private meeting at the Sempra offices in Sacramento. Sempra paid for a meal. In October 2019, Hertzberg received a $500 donation from George Minter, regional Vice President for External Affairs and Environmental Policy at SoCalGas. Minter was a fellow speaker along with Hertzberg at the 2019 Verdexchange conference. At the time, Minter sat on the board of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, an astroturf group promoting the use of natural gas.

The End… For Now

AB 345 was supposed to be voted on again on August 12, but after the three Democratic Senators who initially voted against the bill refused to budge, it was taken off the table. But grassroots environmental justice organizations are continuing to fight for safe and healthy communities.

Hertzberg’s arrogant disdain toward people affected by climate injustice is all too common among supposedly progressive Democrats in California.

As shady California political player David Townsend has said, “It’s not that the money corrupts people. The money finds people that agree with whoever has the money.”

As Hertzberg would say: Welcome to America, baby.

Senator Hertzberg’s office declined a request for comment.

Campaign finance data was obtained from Follow The Money and here. Records of gifts and other payments were obtained here.


¹ The bill’s language was slightly different on August 5, but the meaning was precisely the same. The original language is preserved in the link.