Greens Vs. Big Oil and Prop. 23 

To save California's global-warming law, a 23-year-old finds his rage — and 60,000 friends

Thursday, Oct 28 2010

The charged-up crowd of baby-faced 20-somethings, gray-haired activists and a few parents comes marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles and into the tree-lined plaza next to City Hall on a bright Sunday afternoon. Drums banging, fists flying, people chant, "No on 23!" Actress Ellen Page (Juno) even shows up to throw in her two cents on why Proposition 23 should be defeated, standing solemnly at a podium and telling people that it's "absolutely illogical to not have a sustainable future, and the politicians know that."

Gabe Elsner, a 23-year-old activist who gets little pay and only five or six hours of sleep each night as he works seven days a week to defeat the November ballot measure, smiles at the turnout. Liza Heavener, his 24-year-old girlfriend, who once worked for a U.S. senator, is a little more skeptical.

"It's great to bring people into this rally," she says, "but I wonder how it translates to getting change done. We've seen how isolated lawmakers are, and what I see that speaks is money."

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - UCLA students slam Proposition 23 in Westwood.

Related Stories

  • Wine And Food Pairing Questions Answered

    Pair It!, a food and wine-pairing app, recently told me that for $4.99 I could have great pairing suggestions at my fingertips. As a sample, it suggested that a rich, ripe and earthy Italian wine is the perfect pairing for chocolate truffles and blue cheese. As a wine professional, I can...
  • Marry, People 3

    After the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage to resume in California last summer, people started getting their vows on pretty much right away. See also: Gay Marriage in California: What Happens Next? But California law still contained antiquated language that defined marriage as "a personal relation arising out of...
  • Hollywood Giveaway 7

    According to a recent report by the Milken Institute's California Center, Hollywood is losing jobs to out-of-state locations, including New York City, because they offer greater tax incentives. The losses account for 1 in 10 jobs from 2004 to 2012, and they're good gigs, paying an average of more than $95,000 a...
  • Glove Law Repealed

    Remember six months ago or so when it looked like everyone from your friendly neighborhood barman to your favorite sushi chef was going to remind you more of a surgeon than someone providing hospitality? That's because on Jan. 1, a law went into effect requiring plastic gloves for all hospitality...
  • Californians Like Teachers But Hate Teachers' Lifelong Tenure and Seniority: Poll 2

    If California teachers felt a shadow pass over today, it was the fairly stunning PACE/USC Rossier Poll showing California residents are sick of "last hired, first fired" teacher union rules and oppose the nearly automatic tenure system that makes it all but impossible to fire crappy teachers. Polls show that...

Elsner, the intense, good-natured campaign director for the California Student Sustainability Coalition, suddenly gets serious. "If it gets big enough and loud enough," he says of the effort to stop the measure, which would place a years-long hold on California's greenhouse gas–reduction law, "then [we] can trump the money."

In fact, that's something he's betting on.

Through social media, face-to-face networking and pavement pounding, Elsner leads a key grassroots effort to reach California's nearly 3 million college students and persuade as many as possible to vote against Proposition 23 on Nov. 2.

Largely funded by major oil corporations such as Tesoro, Valero and the agricultural-energy giant Koch Industries, Proposition 23 would suspend California's strict greenhouse gas–reduction standards until the state's unemployment rate falls to 5.5 percent or lower for four straight quarters. Unemployment now stands at 12.4 percent and, since 1980, it has rarely stayed below 5.5 percent for a full year.

Organized opponents of Proposition 23, including environmentalists, labor unions and "clean tech" companies, say the measure would deal a big setback to anti-warming efforts and the state's burgeoning but still tiny "clean energy" economy: 500,000 future green jobs jeopardized and per-person energy costs boosted by $650 a year, thanks to our addiction to oil.

"I hate them," Elsner says of Charles and David Koch, the outspoken libertarian brothers who run Kansas-based Koch Industries. The Kochs, who are worth about $35 billion, have helped fund the Tea Party and have given $1 million in support of Proposition 23. "They do not care about my generation. They do not care about the environment. They're only about themselves. They fire me up. They get me angry."

In a war over statistics, however, the "Yes on 23" campaign counters that 1.1 million jobs will be wiped out by the restrictions approved under Assembly Bill 32, the state's climate-change law, further damaging California's wounded economy. And, the campaign charges, Californians will endure years of higher electricity rates and gas prices.

But Big Green has poured huge sums into defeating Big Oil, with environmental groups and their friends surprising many by outspending the Kochs, Valero and the rest.

Maplight.org, a political-contribution tracking site, reports that Big Green is outspending Big Oil by a staggering 3-to-1, and even traditional utility PG&E gave $500,000 to "No on 23," positioning itself on the side with the momentum. Ultra-rich asset manager Thomas Steyer, who funded the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy at Stanford University, poured in more than $5 million, making the $2.1 million given by legendary Silicon Valley couple John and Ann Doerr seem modest. A key nonpartisan poll shows the measure now badly trailing, 48 percent to 37 percent, with a large bloc of voters on the fence.

The question comes down to something startlingly simple: What do worried California voters, fearful over a sagging economy, see as best for their personal futures: traditional industry, or clean-energy firms?

"Proposition 23 will pass only if voters believe that [the greenhouse gas–reduction] law will hurt job growth," says Tony Quinn, a Sacramento political consultant whose California Target Book closely tracks the state's races. "Voters generally ask of themselves with these kinds of ballot measures, 'What's in it for me?' "

Into this war between monied adults — also on the "No" side, Bill Gates gave $700,000, James Cameron gave $1 million, and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla gave $1.04 million — steps the most under-employed, and unemployed, generation of young Californians in decades. They were widely praised — and highly criticized in some circles — for surging to the polls to help put Barack Obama in the White House.

Proposition 23 is a high-profile test of whether they will continue what they started — prodded by young leaders like Elsner and a single ballot measure affecting jobs, environmental issues and Big Oil.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets


  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.
  • La Brea Tar Pits "Pit 91" Re-Opening
    Starting June 28th, The Page Museum once again proudly unveils the museum's Observation Pit, which originally opened in 1952 but has spent most of the last half century closed. Now visitors can get an up-close look at Pit 91, which is currently under excavation. The La Brea Tar Pits, home of the Page Museum, is one of the world's most famous ice age fossil locations, known for range of fossils from saber-toothed cats and mammoths to microscopic plants, seeds and insects. The new "Excavator Tour" is free with museum admission if purchased online at tarpits.org . All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Scenes from the O.J. Simpson Circus
    In the months after O.J. Simpson's arrest for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in the summer of 1994, the drama inside the courthouse riveted the masses. But almost as much mayhem was happening right outside the building, as well as near Simpson's Brentwood home. Dissenters and supporters alike showed up to showcase art inspired by the case, sell merchandise, and either rally for, or against, the accused football star. Here is a gallery of the madness, captured by a photojournalist who saw it all. All photos by Ted Soqui.