Ever since the scraggly mountain-roaming John Muir joined other Californians to found the Sierra Club in 1892, that state has led the country in protecting the environment.
California began regulating pesticides back in the horse-and-buggy era. Beginning in the 1950s, it passed comprehensive laws for air and water quality, regulation of toxic substances, tougher emissions and efficiency requirements for cars and a ban on offshore oil drilling. All those helped inspire federal laws that covered the whole country. The state has also blazed the way for action on climate change, with the country's toughest renewable-energy requirements: Its utilities must get 20 percent of their electricity from renewables by next year and cannot buy from new coal plants.
Despite its leadership on those green issues, California has a hard time coping with another kind of green: money.
California's government now suffers the worst economic problems of any state, which is really saying something, since the Wall Street/housing industry bust has thrown nearly every state into crisis. California's annual budget deficit is a staggering $27 billion, and its debt from past borrowing stands at $70 billion. That's begun to erode some of the state's environmental achievements. This winter, California froze millions of dollars in funding for thousands of conservation projects. Though that money has begun to move, its long-term availability is uncertain and many conservation groups are still reeling from the delay. Now, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he might have to close hundreds of state parks and eliminate many social programs, such as health care for a million poor kids. No kidding: On July 2, the government began writing IOUs to vendors and taxpayers who are owed refunds. (It's the only state ever to try that -- so far.)
And those are only the symptoms of deeper problems. California's government has been short of money for more than a decade, even as other states went through good times. "It's unfixable," says George Skelton, who covers state politics for the Los Angeles Times. "It will remain unfixable until California's system of governance is pulled apart and overhauled."
In other words, California's politics are like those in every other state and the federal system, only more so.
A one-track anti-government movement has limited California's tax collections and made it nearly impossible to pass any new state tax or even the annual budget. (A two-thirds majority in the Legislature is required.) It's constantly knocking out the most experienced legislators with an imposition of term limits. Failures of the Legislature and governor also trigger barrages of ballot initiatives, in which voters pass special-interest laws with little thought about consequences. Ballot measures to get tough on crime and expand mental health care, for instance, have caused those expenditures to skyrocket.
California's political parties have gerrymandered legislative districts so that the majority party in each district almost always wins the general elections. That shifts the action to the primaries, where the hard-liners rule. "We have a system … where getting stuck in our ideological corners is being rewarded and compromise is being punished," says Schwarzenegger, who's a Republican.
In a May 19 special election, when the governor and Legislature presented five ballot measures to address aspects of the current economic catastrophe, four were rejected -- a crucial decision made by just 12 percent of the eligible voters. That's how many voted against the measures; 7 percent supported the measures and nobody else bothered to vote.
Efforts to reform California's system are making some headway, though, as more people recognize how bad things have become. Voters passed a measure last November establishing an independent bipartisan committee to reshape legislative districts, which could make elections more competitive and increase the odds for moderates to win. There are calls for more ballot measures to roll back the anti-government movement.
All this is a reminder to environmentalists everywhere: It's a good idea to work as broadly as possible, politically and economically. Consider the needs of others. Money shortages and destructive politics might cause environmental goals to be weakened or put off. And unless the basic problems of government and society are addressed, any environmental victory will be hollow.
Carbon capture chimera?
When the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed the House of Representatives on June 26, the U.S. took another cautious step toward regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Such regulations eventually may take a bite out of the fossil fuel industry and the nation's cheapest source of energy: coal. So lawmakers and officials have been pouring resources into geologic carbon sequestration – a process for scrubbing carbon dioxide out of the exhaust streams of big emitters like coal-fired power plants and oil refineries, compressing the gas into a liquid, and injecting it deep underground. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is about two years into an estimated half-decade rulemaking process to accommodate sequestration under U.S. underground drinking water protections. In the West, where disused oil and gas fields are likely candidates for initial attempts at large-scale carbon storage, several states have passed laws to govern the as-yet-nonexistent industry. So far, Wyoming has led the push, and it's not hard to see why. The state's economy relies heavily upon energy development and, according to Headwaters Economics, is more vulnerable to fossil fuel market volatility than any other state in the Lower 48.
481 million Dollars the Department of Energy invested in geologic sequestration research and development between 1997 and 2008
3.4 billion Dollars allocated to the same purpose under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
20 Minimum percentage of a standard coal-fired power plant's electricity output required to capture
and compress its CO2 emissions with current technology
67,000 Minimum number of new sequestration wells the U.S. would need to drill in order to maintain emissions near 1990 levels for the next 20 years
670 billion Rough cost estimate, in dollars, for those wells
40,000 Average number of new oil and gas wells drilled annually in the United States
0 Number of large-volume carbon capture and sequestration projects active in the United States
3 Number of large-volume carbon capture and sequestration projects active worldwide
1 million Metric tons of carbon dioxide injected annually under the North Sea since 1996, when Statoil's Sleipner project began operating
1 million Average annual carbon dioxide emissions, in metric tons, of one 150-megawatt coal-fired power plant