Big Oil's California Battleground

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The new documentary Pump lays out the costs and risks of our dependence on oil to move around—the dependence that’s creating an asthma epidemic in families who live near highways. The dependence that forces families to spend their hard-earned money to feed the profits of the oil monopoly, allowing the biggest five oil companies, even in the “down year” of 2013, to pull in profits of $177,000 a minute. One minute. That’s less time than it takes to fill up your gas tank.

In California, home to some of the strongest clean air and climate policies in the world, Big Oil is using those hefty profits to try and turn back the clock and stop measures that would help reduce oil dependence, save drivers money on gas and clean up air pollution. Instead of investing in cleaning up their operations, oil corporations are financing yet another campaign to convince California lawmakers to derail the implementation of tough climate laws and extend their free pass to pollute.

The cost of that free pass is borne by the public. Last year the average American household spent four percent of its pretax income just on gasoline, the highest amount in decades. This figure doesn’t include the health costs of pollution from vehicles. According to the American Lung Association, each 16.4 gallon tank of gas brings with it an additional cost of $20 in health and other damages.

In California, air pollution from cars and trucks kills more people each year than traffic accidents do. A West Oakland resident, who lives near the convergence of three major highways, recently wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that he and his neighbors routinely wipe soot off their children’s toys. Kids in West Oakland are seven times more likely than other California children to end up in the hospital because of asthma.

Smart policies in California are helping people break free of the costs of oil, clearing the air, reducing carbon pollution, and saving money for drivers. The state’s popular clean energy law, AB 32, encourages transportation options that allow people and businesses to move around without being tethered to gas, like electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid cars, walkable and bike-friendly neighborhoods, better public transportation, car shares and (my personal favorite) bike shares.

What’s more, starting next year pollution fees from the state’s successful cap-and-trade program, a key component of AB32, will be reinvested to help reduce dependency on oil and further reduce pollution. At least one-quarter will go toward initiatives that benefit low-income communities, who often suffer the most from air pollution.

The oil industry, California’s largest source of carbon pollution, is scheduled to join the cap-and-trade program on January 1st. But Big Oil claims—despite the fact that it’s had 8 years notice (sufficient time for America to put a man on the moon), and despite the fact that California’s other major emitting industries have already been participating and held accountable for their pollution for nearly two years--it’s not ready.

Big Oil is ready, however, to bankroll numerous front groups claiming to represent grassroots opposition to the law, which has strong support among California voters. These industry-funded groups are intended to put a human face on Big Oil to persuade California lawmakers that the oil industry should be allowed to continue playing by its own rules and shirk responsibility for its pollution. In addition to floating these front groups, since 2009 the oil industry has spent more than $63 million on lobbying in California alone.

Big Oil has a lot invested in ensuring that our transportation system remains locked in yesteryear. But Californians will benefit greatly from progress that will leave dirty energy in the past. Governor Brown has been a strong supporter of AB 32, and if he and lawmakers continue to stand firm against the oil lobby, AB 32 will save Californians more than $8 billion in health costs by 2030 by slashing air pollution. It will save families $2,000 a year in fuel costs, and cut 150 million tons of carbon pollution by 2030.

That’s a future we can all look forward to. And that’s why California does not stand alone in this fight. All over the country, particularly in the northwest and northeast, state and city governments are looking for smart, cost-effective ways to rein in carbon pollution. Encouraging electric vehicles is one of these strategies. As my colleague Roland Hwang points out in the movie Pump, electric cars allow drivers to avoid the pump entirely and drive on the equivalent of $1 per gallon gasoline.

Allowing the oil industry to evade its responsibilities under the law will not only keep Californians locked in to a future of dirty air, extreme weather, and vulnerability to gas price shocks, but will further delay a national move to cleaner energy.

Clean energy, not dirty oil, is the way to a future free of gas price volatility, cleaner air and a healthier, more stable climate.