Author of California’s failed fossil fuel divestment bill describes what went wrong

After narrowly passing the California State Senate, Legislature’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill, SB 1173, recently met a silent death in the Assembly, where it didn’t even come before a public hearing. . Instead, a single Democratic lawmaker refuse to consider the bill in his committee, which he had to pass in order to pass to the Assembly for a full vote. It was a disappointing defeat for a bill backed by more than 100 environmental and climate-focused groups and others, including the state treasurer’s office, the city of Los Angeles and the California Federation of Teachers. .

Despite the extensive campaign by advocates to contact and push lawmakers for closure, the bill — which would have ordered the managers of two state pension funds to divest more than $11 billion from the top 200 oil companies and gas in eight years – succumbed to a bureaucratic quirk. of the California legislature, where some legislators wield inordinate power to shape the state’s agenda and priorities. Because next year is the start of a new two-year session, any lawmakers interested in recapturing the bill’s purpose will have to draft a new bill and push for it to pass in both houses again.

After identifying the committee process as a bottleneck for climate bills, Capital & Main spoke with the author of the divestment bill, Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach ) to find out what went wrong and whether these bills can succeed in the future.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Capital & Main: Environmental groups said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Sacramento) killed the divestment bill. What exactly happened?

Senator Lena Gonzalez: Well, we luckily got it from the Senate, which was a difficult feat in itself. He got only 21 votes. We knew it would be an uphill battle to get it through the Assembly, especially with the Public Employment and Pensions Commission. You have the President, Jim Cooper, you have Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Sacramento)…members who are not, I think , historically inclined to vote for divestment bills.

The Chairman of the Assembly Committee has a great deal of autonomy, whereas in the Senate we more than likely hear most bills, unless we arrange with the sponsor of the bill to withhold it for whatever reason. So Cooper just decided he wasn’t going to hear it. Which I think hampers the democratic process. I was fully prepared to introduce the bill even if it wouldn’t get a vote. Let the bill at least be heard. Hopefully we can start to get more support for the bill this year and bring it back next year.

[In a statement sent to Capital & Main, Cooper reiterated his standard opposition to any bill mandating state pension fund divestment.]

“The fact that MP Cooper did not have to hear this bill is a problem in this democratic process.

Was there a way around this? Could your office, or some of the attorneys, have requested private meetings with Cooper’s office?

They met him several times and other members. And when I spoke to the other members, it was black and white. They couldn’t see the gray area, they couldn’t see the path, they said, divestment is not something we believe in. investment manager, who gave me great insight into why they decided to give in and why it was an important decision to make now, even with high gas prices and inflation. My team and I spoke with trilium, who was willing to testify for us, and one of their chief investment officers as well. So we did a lot of homework. But I felt like everyone threw it aside, like it was too big to do.

New York City took $3 billion off fossil fuels. Maine’s public employee retirement system sold $1.3 billion. What does the defeat of California’s climate policy leadership bill say?

Obviously, we’ve had so much influence from the oil and gas industry. The bill originally had a time horizon of five years, and I had to accept an amendment at the Senate Judiciary Committee to push it back to eight years. We’ve seen other portfolios divest in a year. Portfolios with far more fossil fuel investments than what we have in our own state pension funds, amounting to up to $11 billion.

So it can be done but unfortunately the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) have been so entrenched in their own process and broadcast a lot misinformation [about negative impacts to the funds from fossil fuel divestment]. And now I’m on them.

It looks like you’re saying that a lot of the blame can be placed on CalPERS and CalSTRS. Can we tell if the Californian legislative process, or perhaps the process of building a political coalition, is at fault?

I think about it because the fact that MP Cooper did not have to hear this bill is an issue in this democratic process. Overall, I think we’re a leader on the environment — people like to say in California that we’ve got all this climate policy in place. And we did, but we’re also a very large state with very diverse needs. We are all very different shades of blue, so we don’t all subscribe to the same notion of climate action. Some of us don’t even subscribe to that. It is therefore not enough to say that we are a progressive state because we are a supermajority. We really need to be thoughtful in our approach to the environment. It has to be about putting our money where our mouth is, in terms of our values.

“Sometimes politicians only think about whether the oil and gas industry is going to support them in political campaigns.”

Last year, the big climate bill was SB 467, which was a heavy set of regulations on the oil and gas industry in California. It was rejected by the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee — three Democrats failed to approve it, joining GOP members. So it’s now been two years in a row that the biggest climate-focused bills in each session have been defeated. And that comes down to those committees in both chambers. How can climate-focused advocates and legislation maneuver through committee opposition?

I think at the end of the day, sometimes it comes down to politics, unfortunately. And sometimes politicians only think about whether the oil and gas industry is going to support them in political campaigns, or piss off our friends at the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. I hate to be so simplistic about it, but sometimes that’s exactly what it boils down to.

When SB 1173 passed the Senate, Senator Nielsen (R-Butte County) dismissed it as a “declaration”. Can you describe how the bill would have served the interests of your constituents?

The bill comes from one of my constituents. He was a member of the Sierra Club, he’s an environmentalist at his home in Long Beach, and he wrote an op-ed in the local Long Beach newspaper saying we should get fossil fuels out of CalSTRS and CalPERS pensions. And if anyone can do it, Lena Gonzalez can do it. And many of my constituents are educators, or they have been educators for a long time and are now retired. A lot of them grew up and lived in Long Beach and Southeast LA near the refineries, they grew up near the coast, so they’re naturally, naturally, environmental.

Second, finances — with the war in Ukraine and oil prices soaring — many economists and pundits have told me it’s time to get out.

Now that the divestment bill is dead, are you sponsoring any other climate or environmental bills? Are there others on your radar for this session that have a chance of passing?

I have a few on the clean vehicle side. SB 1382 provides a sales tax exemption for the Clean Cars 4 All program and makes it fairer. We’re giving away all those dollars, up to $9,500, which is what a Californian can get by flipping his old clunker and getting a zero-emissions car. The data shows that we’re really not getting into the lowest low-income communities, especially those areas with horrible air quality, Southeast Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, places that I know ‘they have to start the transition. My bill would therefore grant an exemption on the sales tax, which, for a $30,000 car, you could obtain up to $1,500 in tax refunds.

I have another one for creating a zero-emission vehicle equity advocate. I know there is also SB 54, a bill on plastics, which I find enormous. This is another big problem. But there are quite a few good bills in the works, which I’m glad to see.

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main

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