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When Cap And Trade Goes Bad —  The Urgency Of Opposing AB 398 Today

In a dose of little needed bad news, California is threatening to pass a cap and trade bill that is somehow far worse than nothing.

The Valero Oil Refinery in Benicia, CA.

Climate change is real and happening. Everybody worth a damn (which is to say everyone aside from the science-denying lunatics currently running our federal government) wants something to get done when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. And that something often takes the form of cap and trade policy, for reasons both good (our success mitigating the impact of acid rain) and bad (unnecessary centrism that has seen Democrats negotiate against themselves in setting carbon policy). This has conditioned us to be okay with cap and trade bills even if they’re less effective than hard caps and taxes. “Better than nothing,” we say as we wish more were being done.

In a dose of little needed bad news, California is threatening to pass a cap and trade bill that is actually far worse than nothing. AB 398, a bill to extend the state’s signature cap and trade program to 2030, is facing a Senate vote on Monday and could hit the governor’s desk in a matter of days. Since Governor Brown is behind this nefarious pseudo-compromise, he’s sure to sign it. On its face its a standard issue extension of the state’s existing cap and trade bill. But dig a little deeper and it is a disaster on many fronts.

Cap and trade itself is not necessarily bad policy. But it does take a dangerously circuitous route towards its end goal of reducing carbon emissions. By creating the political conditions for bad actors to enter the legislative process, cap and trade negotiations can turn what should be a program designed to reduce carbon emissions into one that allows polluters to pay a fee to pollute. You can set the emissions cap too high, meaning you miss your overall emissions targets even if polluters adhere to the plan. You can price permits too low, essentially creating meaningless penalties for polluters who go beyond the caps they are meant to adhere to. Or you can give out too many free offsets to current market participants, that function as bonus checks for longtime polluters.

Essentially, in reupping California’s policy Brown and co. had to tread a narrow line to preserve and improve the state’s existing program without ruining it in the process of wrangling votes. Jerry Brown’s policy in this case hits the ruination trifecta. The whole bill is effectively functioning as a giveaway to local oil concerns. The limits don’t put a meaningful ceiling on refining capacity; they’re arguably higher than they were in the last iteration of the policy. And the free handouts of allowances in the renewal, which should not be necessary any longer, mean that if polluters do have to pay, the costs will effectively be so slight as to have no impact on their behavior. This is another in a run of awful anti-environmental “compromises” from California’s governor. But it gets worse.

This bill also guts the ability for local communities to have a say in the carbon emissions being produced. Currently air districts within California have the capacity to control any airborne pollutants. This bill takes away their ability to have a say on CO2 emissions. It effectively prevents communities from stopping the flow of carbon emissions in their area.

Also this bill creates a fee exemption for property owners in fire prone areas for paying towards fire mitigation. The State Responsibility Area Fire Fees exist to ensure that those people living in fire prone regions are funding statewide efforts to prevent fires. This is a good thing. The average fee for property owners is 117 dollars a year. This money goes directly towards fire prevention. Right now fire seasons are more extreme than ever, and with the effects of global warming on the rise they will only get worse. So not only does this bill lead California to be a contributor to the problem of global warming, it then refuses to fund the mitigation of the worst and most direct effects of global warming. This will cost the state’s fire prevention efforts a crucial $80 million a year. This is something the state’s most conservative Republicans have been trying to get for years, and including this awful giveaway in this bill is goddamn insane.

Essentially what Governor Brown has created is the wherewithal for supposedly progressive California to be a primary locus for oil refining in the United States. That’s a disaster and an embarrassment. If passed, this bill will cement his legacy of deception and failure as an environmental leader for our state. These concerns have been raised by a number of NGO’s including the Sierra Club and Food and Water Watch, and yet the the bill has only gotten worse in each iteration.

What’s worse is that this bill will likely hit the California State Senate floor on Monday, and could potentially be reconciled and passed on the floor of assembly the same day. There’s little time to act before California’s carbon mitigation efforts are set back by a decade at the worst possible moment. Compromise is not inherently bad, but this compromise is a catastrophe. It is incumbent upon anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist to contact their state senator immediately. Let them know that you won’t be fooled by this nightmarish sleight of hand.