DIVIDED OVER WAR, THE ECONOMY and other trenchant issues, the top three presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama, have all been giving lip service to going green, and that could presage a major swing in Washington next year, toward a crackdown on tailpipe emissions and maybe even toward dismantling stubborn barriers to solar and other alternative energy.
All three candidates — two Democrats, one Republican — are lining up behind California in challenging federal law in an effort to crack down on cars spewing carbon dioxide. All three have also touted a new push for solar, with Republican McCain — hailing from an even more sun-drenched state than California — recently hitting a tour of a Southern California solar-panel factory.
Although global warming and the environment have been dramatically overshadowed by voters' economic worries, the three leaders are plainly trying to top one another, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama first signing on as co-sponsors of Senator Barbara Boxer's bill that would give California a clear right to override federal law and impose tight new state-based limits on the notorious greenhouse gas. And McCain (as well as the other leading Republican contenders), questioned before the Super Tuesday primary, promptly took California's side in its legal fight against the Bush administration and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has authority over carbon dioxide standards — and which has told California to back off.
The bipartisan solidarity — whether election-season spin or not — is seen as a slap upside the head of lame-duck Bush and a sign that, regardless of who wins the presidency, California eventually could prevail in its legal fight against Washington to slash smog emissions from cars, SUVs and pickup trucks.
Such a breakthrough would represent a rare, clear-cut leap forward for California's painfully slow green movement, bogged down by economic barriers to technologies like solar power, federal resistance to upstart state laws like the emissions crackdown, and highly localized red tape that has "green" cities like Los Angeles and Santa Monica barely muddling along on alternative energy and other promising trends.
In a state that claims to lead the push for clean air and renewable resources (a largely unprovable claim made by many states), the California green movement is still a story of roadblocks, mislaid intentions and mucked-up plans.
"The clock is ticking, that's what is so frustrating about all this," says former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, who introduced California's tailpipe-emissions law — the one California and the EPA are warring over — back in 2001. Despite the fact that Sacramento's 120-person Legislature is controlled by a sizable majority of liberal Democrats who claim to embrace Pavley's views, they carried water for the auto industry for years by opposing Pavley — mirroring self-described green Democrats in Washington who strenuously resisted tougher gas-mileage standards for Detroit.
It took Pavley three years to persuade her fellow legislators to adopt the regulations eventually signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, then three more years elapsed before the EPA in December responded as expected: "No way — this is federal turf." So the state filed suit against the feds, arguing that it does have jurisdiction over tailpipe emissions — a complex legal battle, now in federal court.
"Here we go, another year's delay," Pavley says. The polite, soft-spoken suburbanite legislator from Agoura Hills — who has a rare reputation in Sacramento for avoiding partisan histrionics — says the green effort is just not moving "as fast as we would like."
Even ideas that aren't controversial, like installing solar panels, are often balled up in bureaucratic red tape and steep initial costs that tax breaks and other incentives simply don't cover.
One new solar array in Los Angeles, unveiled to considerable fanfare two months ago, sits atop the roof of a warehouse in almost-always sunny Van Nuys. At about half the size of a football field, the $750,000 configuration of metallic blue panels is one of the largest private commitments to solar power in L.A. — which says something about what people are really willing to put their money into, in a city jammed with $2 million homes and $200,000 landscaping jobs. Owner Ady Gil, 49, says he decided to plunk down the $750,000 because "too many people talk and do nothing" about renewable energy. When conditions are perfect — when the hot Valley sun is glaring down — the array should generate enough wattage to power 30 homes.