The obvious message was — well, obvious — at last week’s debate among Democratic presidential contenders. When it comes to the environment: Bush is bad; the Democrats are much better.

Tell us something that we don’t know.

California has more specific concerns, namely, Which Democrat is most likely to get the feds out of the way and let the good, green people of California clean up their air, land and water?

The fundamental California story under Bush is one of a state that is trying to improve the environment and a federal government that is trying to prevent it. The Bush administration, for example, has pre-empted state standards for new electric plants and other facilities, insisting instead on weaker federal standards, even while in the midst of a power-plant construction boom. The feds also have intervened on the side of automakers in litigation against California’s zero-emissions-vehicle standards. The result is that the state recently weakened requirements for automakers to sell electric cars and hybrid vehicles. Meanwhile, sales of high-polluting sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and vans boom. The increase in the number of dirtier big vehicles is causing an increase in smog throughout much of California, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Last week’s debate fell on the 18th day of unhealthful air in Southern California this year that five Democratic presidential hopefuls attacked George W. Bush for both relaxing and failing to enforce environmental rules. They included Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), with a League of Conservation Voters rating of 93 percent; John Kerry (D-Mass.), rated at 96 percent; and former Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), rated at 79 percent, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who are not rated by the league because they do not have national voting records.

All of them skirted the issue of eliminating pre-emptive federal standards that are weaker than state requirements. Their dialogue revolved around the environmental impacts of oil — from global warming to air pollution — and the pro-oil Bush energy policy, which includes the administration’s failure to require more fuel-

efficient cars. They denounced offshore oil drilling and opening up wilderness in Alaska to oil and gas development.

“We cannot drill our way out of this problem,” said Kerry. “We have to invent our way out of it.”

Lieberman proclaimed: “We’ve got to break our addiction to oil.”

And Sharpton elicited cackles and applause with a quip: “It’s so oily in Washington, it’s greasy. We need to get the greasy people out and the right people in.”

Dean joined the other candidates in calling for increased mileage standards for sport utility vehicles and greater tax incentives for purchasing hybrid and electric vehicles. After the debate, farm-state Democrat Moseley-Braun told reporters that ethanol made from corn could be an important renewable fuel for cars. That view is not unanimous in California, where ethanol requirements are expected to worsen air quality and raise fuel prices.

The forum generated a bevy of decent ideas, but nothing to break anyone out of the pack. California lawmakers, by contrast, passed a law last year that mandates reduced automotive emissions of global-warming gases by 2009. “California is the first government in the world to require a reduction in global-warming gases from cars,” said Jason Mark, clean-vehicles program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley. Those standards are expected to increase gas mileage by requiring greater use of hybrid engines. Burning less gasoline also would cut smog by reducing the manufacture, transporting and pumping of gasoline,

said Mark.

In response, automakers plan to sue on the grounds that federal law pre-empts California. Congress could head off this litigation by repealing the federal pre-emption or by carving out an exemption for California. Lieberman and Kerry never brought that subject up. Contacted separately, aides for the senators said they are supportive of California’s law, but the aides said the lawmakers have no announced position on repeal of the federal limitations.

But Senator Kerry would increase the average mileage of new passenger vehicles sold from some 21 miles per gallon for light trucks and 27.5 miles for cars to 36 miles per gallon by 2015. Lieberman wants an increase to 40 miles per gallon. Both Lieberman and Kerry also propose generating 20 percent of the nation’s electricity with renewable energy by 2020. Energy Information Agency projections show these proposals would barely keep pace with projected growth in energy demand. U.S. petroleum use is expected to grow from about 20 million barrels a day to 25 million barrels a day by 2015, or by some 25 percent. U.S. electricity demand is expected to grow from 20 billion to 27 billion kilowatt-hours per year, or 35 percent, by 2020.

It’s the feds versus the state all over again when it comes to air pollution emitted at California’s ports, said Sam Atwood, communications manager for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The local air district and the state largely are unable to regulate pollution from the shipping industry because of federal limits on controlling interstate commerce. Meanwhile, traffic at the port is expected to double by 2020.

A few contenders were missing from the debate, which was hosted at UCLA by the League of Conservation Voters: Senators John Edwards (D-N.C.), rated at 76 percent by the league, and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), rated at 81 percent. Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), rated at 90 percent, also skipped, because of Washington obligations that included meeting with former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. For Kucinich, a meeting with Nader would almost count as an excused absence, given the subject matter.

Based on the League ratings alone, Lieberman would be a strong contender for environmentalists. But critics from Connecticut and elsewhere chastise his embrace of nuclear power. Notably, Lieberman missed a crucial June 10 vote in the Senate on an energy-bill amendment that would have denied federal-loan guarantees for construction of nuclear-power plants. The amendment narrowly failed. Lieberman has said on numerous occasions that he supports nuclear power in place of oil as a way to meet energy needs without polluting the air.

“I don’t think any of these candidates have a sustainable energy program that looks down the line after the age of fossil fuels,” said Mike DeRosa, co-chair of the Connecticut Green Party.

A slightly more encouraging view came from David Allgood, Southern California director of the California League of Conservation Voters: “I came away feeling any of the candidates would do better or more than this administration.”

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