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Jerry Brown and California Move To Halve Oil Use (As Foreshadowed in 2001)

01/09/2016 11:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2016

California showed up big at last month's UN climate summit in Paris, presenting a model for how one of the world's biggest economies can shift rapidly to renewable power and conservation, sharply cutting greenhouse gas emissions while growing an advanced industrial system. Governor Jerry Brown also led the organization of a new consortium of subnational governments in Paris representing more than a quarter of global economic output pledging to cut greenhouse gases enough to avert a disastrous future. And a few days ago the Golden State took another big step forward on climate and alternative energy policy, moving aggressively to cut dependence on fossil fuels in transportation.

Strikingly, much of what has occurred and is occurring was prefigured in a Q&A I did with then former Governor and Oakland Mayor Brown 15 years ago for the LA Weekly. As you'll see below, he discussed then the need to take advantage of what was at the time the state's severe electric power crisis to move forward on future-oriented energy and climate policies.

"We can stick with fossil fuels and fuel the future crisis or use this as an opportunity to bring many more renewables online."

Governor Jerry Brown, 2001

If at first you don't succeed ... Brown is back with his plan to cut petroleum use in California in half by 2030, despite its legislative defeat last year by a faction of pro-oil Assembly Democrats heavily influenced by a big money industry campaign. He's using the budget process to do it, an approach that will be much harder for so-called "moderate" Democrats in league with the oil industry to stop than last year's perhaps ill-advised and unnecessary stand-alone legislation. That assumes, of course, that they would even want to try now, with their leader, now former Assemblyman Henry Perea, having just resigned his seat to become a corporate lobbyist and the group's big money ties to the oil and tobacco industries now well exposed and understood.

Brown introduced another mostly well-reviewed California state budget on Thursday. It's an interesting if hardly unexpected proposal, continuing his now trademark approach of eschewing lots of big new ongoing programs even amidst big budget surpluses while looking to discrete future-oriented expenditures, rainy day contingencies and debt reduction, and, with Brown's State of the State address coming up later this month, I'll discuss it as we go. A new state budget won't be enacted till the middle of the year. For now, Brown's plan to spend over $1 billion -- part of the annual proceeds from the state's very well-functioning carbon cap and trade market -- to get California closer to his goal of a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by 2030 is the focus here.

Brown all but said "I'll be back" when the bill encapsulating this goal from his landmark 4th Inaugural Address went down last September. It was a notable setback, especially in its rarity with regard to climate issues, and may well have been as unnecessary as it was shining, as I discussed in this piece.

Signals may have been crossed between Brown and legislative leaders, who moved forward with legislation to do some things the governor called for in his sweeping inaugural address that may well not have required specific legislation, given implicit executive authority and powers over the budget. Matters were further complicated by a shift in the Assembly leadership, leaving something of a power vacuum in that house. And the oil industry complicated matters by getting the drop on Brown from a PR and string-pulling standpoint, funding a massive and massively deceptive advertising campaign against his design to cut oil use, falsely claiming that driving would be rationed in California.

As it happens, Brown foreshadowed his present aggressive course long ago, including in this conversational question-and-answer session I did with him for the LA Weekly 15 years ago, in February 2001, as California's electric power crisis mounted as a result of merchant power companies manipulating a deregulation scheme instituted by former Republican Governor Pete Wilson.

I set the context for the discussion with an introductory paragraph, then launched into what turned out to be an intriguingly prescient conversation with Brown.

However vexing California's current energy crisis may seem, it would be immeasurably worse but for the governorship of Jerry Brown. During his two terms as governor (1975-83), Brown initiated what were then viewed as radical innovations in energy policy, shifting state priorities away from nuclear energy toward environment-friendly sources and an emphasis on conservation. Two decades later, California remains one of the most energy-efficient states in the nation. Brown is currently mayor of Oakland, where he is developing a municipal energy policy for the current crunch, and watching the administration of Gray Davis, his onetime chief of staff, attempt to craft a policy for the state. Brown spoke about the opportunities and pitfalls that California faced a quarter-century ago -- and that it faces again today.

BRADLEY: When you became governor in 1975, the growth rate in electric-power demand in California was around 7 percent. You decided that level of consumption and waste really wasn't necessary. What steps did you take and why?

JERRY BROWN: It wasn't just me. It was a confluence of events and people; I tried to play the role of a catalyst. It was an earlier time of energy crisis; the economy had slowed down. There was a new California Energy Commission built into the process. Its job was to look at the overall. The Public Utilities Commission took the more traditional approach. There was my energy adviser, the late Wilson Clark, a brilliant man. There was Sim van der Ryn, whom I made state architect and head of a new Office of Appropriate Technology.

I had Amory Lovins debate Herman Kahn in the Governor's Office. Lovins said the 7 percent growth rate was wrong. We set out to prove him right. We felt we could get it down around 2 percent, even with a growing population. And we did, pushing energy efficiency, giving tax credits for solar and conservation, stimulating new industries like wind power.

BRADLEY: You spoke then of an "Era of Limits."

JERRY BROWN: In 1976, when I ran in the late presidential primaries. We seem to be running up against some limits again.

BRADLEY: So it appears.

JERRY BROWN: With the efficiency emphasis and putting renewables into the mix that we started, California is the fourth lowest per capita user of energy of all the states. It could be much worse.

BRADLEY: How many nuclear-power plants did the utilities want to build in California?

JERRY BROWN: There were a lot of crazy numbers flying around. [California Attorney General and 1978 Republican gubernatorial candidate] Evelle Younger was close to the industry. He and Edward Teller ran around together in 1978 saying we needed 40 nuclear plants.

BRADLEY: Imagine all the "stranded costs" for the utilities that would have come from that.

JERRY BROWN: It would have dwarfed the bailout of 1996. It could have been hundreds of billions. When I was governor, the president of one of the utilities told me -- after a fund-raising dinner and drinks -- that he hoped his company's nuclear-power plant wouldn't go critical on his watch. He laughed, and I shivered.

BRADLEY: Your energy strategy was derided by some as "wood chips and windmills."

JERRY BROWN: It was. The "wood chips" business, that came from the Diamond Walnut project, burning walnut shells to boil water and make electricity. There are a lot of ways to do that. Burning "wood chips," natural gas, cogeneration, geothermal, methane, oil, firing off nuclear reactions, which is kind of overkill if you think about it.

Windmills: When I left office, California was the world leader in wind energy. We produced 92 percent of it. Since then, California has stalled out. Germany has taken the lead, with three times as much wind power now. With natural gas where it is, wind power is very attractive. And we can bring fuel cells and photovoltaics into the mix. We can use the Internet to bring in real-time pricing and resume the march to more efficiency.

BRADLEY: You said a while ago of the deregulation scheme, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

JERRY BROWN: They came up with a Rube Goldberg scheme. The spot market has been a disaster.

BRADLEY: Now in Oakland you're taking some immediate steps.

JERRY BROWN: Sixty percent of city facilities are already pretty energy-efficient. We're going to retrofit lighting, improve heating and power distribution systems in city buildings, and modify ventilation fans at the city jail. We're cutting off decorative lights and fountains. We're looking for green power sources, and we may put solar panels on the roofs of some city facilities.

BRADLEY: Are you thinking of setting up a city utility in Oakland?

JERRY HBROWN: That's very expensive.

BRADLEY: You did mention something about a power plant around the time of your State of the City address.

JERRY BROWN: We might do that. But I want to see how things play out at the state level. That's where we can turn this problem into a great opportunity.

BRADLEY: How do you feel your former chief of staff, Gray Davis, is doing?

JERRY BROWN: He's in a difficult spot. He was slow off the mark, but he's very intelligent and capable. This thing hit a lot of people by surprise.

BRADLEY: Do you think consumer rates are artificially low, or do you think that wholesale electric prices are being artificially jacked up?

JERRY BROWN: The real supply problem is in the summer, when peak demand is much higher, not the winter.

The consumer rates are artificially low for the market, by definition. When supply is controlled by a small group that isn't regulated, it's hard to make things work without raising rates.

BRADLEY: They want it to work without any increase in rates.

JERRY BROWN: Sure. Howard Hughes wanted the Spruce Goose to fly. Part of the short-term crisis may be taken care of by the recession.

That was the pattern in the '70s. With a coming recession, you get a decline in energy usage. Economic crisis, like an energy crisis, provides opportunity for a new direction.

BRADLEY: What should we do about the utilities and their financial situation?

JERRY BROWN: Their holding companies are sure sound. We need to sort through their real finances. It's very complicated. Bankruptcies would hurt a lot of people. Retirees. The state pension funds have big holdings. And we might not have much claim over their assets. We might lose even more control over our energy future if they went into bankruptcy.

BRADLEY: In your experience, how long do you think we have in terms of new approaches on energy before people get complacent again?

JERRY BROWN: Who says people can get complacent again? We got away from [a policy of transforming our energy base to renewable sources] with Reagan and Bush and Deukmejian and Wilson. They ended up liking a lot of the energy efficiency, but dismantled a lot of the renewables. They're fossil-fuel guys. They took our higher efficiency for granted and failed to plan for the future. This is a problem that is going to continue, because half the power plants in the state are 30 years old.

Most of the living Nobel science laureates proclaimed in their 1992 "Warning to Humanity" that the real dangers are insufficient food, deforestation, species loss and climate change which could trigger "unpredictable collapses of critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly understand." We can stick with fossil fuels and fuel the future crisis or use this as an opportunity to bring many more renewables online.

BRADLEY: Do you feel the state power authority is a good way to go?

JERRY BROWN: It could be. We have to be careful about centralizing power in opposing the centralization of power. It requires a lot of thought to make sure that government doesn't merely replicate the same old patterns. It could be a good part of the mix, though people are suspicious of state government running even part of the show.

BRADLEY: But municipal utilities are doing well, mostly sailing through the crisis.

JERRY BROWN: They are. We would be in much worse shape without them.

The discussion reveals Brown's view of the 2001 California electric power crisis as opportunity to resume moving forward on the renewable energy and conservation path he'd set California upon during his first go-round as governor in the '70s and '80s. It also reveals his anticipation of further crises to come providing ongoing opportunity for innovation, as well as his pragmatic preference to use governmental influence on existing private infrastructure rather than new governmental agencies per se.

Within a year-and-a-half of this conversation, Brown's independent-minded former chief of staff, then Governor Gray Davis, had again placed California on the green energy path, launching the biggest renewable energy requirement in the nation and signing the nation's biggest climate legislation severely cutting tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. At the same time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, then making Terminator 3 -- whom I knew was, contrary to widespread expectations, a would-be champion of the green energy path -- told me that if he became governor of California he would actually accelerate Davis's efforts on renewables, conservation, and greenhouse gas emissions. Within a few years, then himself the governor of California, Schwarzenegger proved as good as his word.

Schwarzenegger and Davis built greatly on Brown's pathfinding legacy. Now Brown is building greatly on theirs.

His new initiative to further his goal of a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by 2030 uses the budget process to put $400 million into new rail programs, $100 million into new pedestrian and cycling programs, $25 million into biofuels, and $500 million into the Air Resources Board's Low Carbon Transportation Program for new vehicles.

Brown is very persistent. He will get where he is going on cutting oil use in California, building on already existing state and federal programs. As you see, it's something that has been on his mind for a very long time.

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