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Just how green is California's jolly green governor?

by Greg Lucas, published

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has worked tirelessly to create a legacy proving that a strong economy and cleaner environment are not mutually exclusive.  Has he done it?

The economy hasn't cooperated -- more than 2.3 million Californians are unemployed  -- but the GOP governor, whose party calls him a Republican in name only (RINO), has launched California on an ambitious path toward cleaner air and a greater commitment to sustainable practices both in the public and the private sector. 

     "I think he has been the most successful environmental governor in the state's history," said Terry Tamminen, a long-time friend of Schwarzenegger and previous secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. "Just look through the headlines."

A look at the headlines is impressive, starting with the signing of AB 32, the landmark measure that calls for California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  Creation of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, which at 25 million acres stretching from Kern County to the Oregon border is by far the state's largest. Inking a deal with the Tejon Ranch Co. in Southern California preserving roughly 90 percent of the historic 270,000 acre property. The One Million Solar Panels Initiative. Construction of the Hydrogen Highway. The world's first Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which aims to reduce the carbon in California's passenger vehicle fuels by 10 percent, again by 2020. Signing legislation that, for the first time, links reducing greenhouse gases with new development. 

Schwarzenegger summed up his philosophy when he accepted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's  Environmental Climate Change Champion Award on December 2.  

     "Seven years ago when I ran for governor I had a lot of the environmentalists protest me wherever I went because I was a Hummer driver. The worst of all for them was that I had an 'R' in front of me. I was a Republican so they said, 'What is he talking about, he's going to protect the environment?' 

     "Of course, I reminded them that the history of the Republicans has been actually very good. If you think about Teddy Roosevelt, who was one of the great conservationists, if you think about the EPA was created by President Nixon 40 years ago in 1970. Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the landmark California Environmental Quality Act."

And its emblematic of Schwarzenegger's environmental record that he has criticized the same law he praises Reagan for signing as contributing to the delay in constructing public works and other projects. 

While environmentalists still consider Schwarzenegger's record uneven, some of the most vocal critics of his efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are traditional pro-GOP business groups like the state Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.  They argue that the state's businesses are already the cleanest in the world and they fear the expense of implementing AB 32 will make them even less competitive. Of particular concern is the increase in energy costs they say comes from Schwarzenegger's call that the state get 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by -- once again -- 2020. 

     "A 33 percent (renewable portfolio standard) raises many significant issues tied to transmission planning and the cost of renewables" the chamber wrote in a study urging "cost-effective" implementation of AB 32. 

Action hero-like, many of Schwarzenegger's accomplishments are ambitious initiatives that tend to be long on goals and short on detail in how to reach them.   Besides the 12-page AB 32 and the 33 percent renewable requirement, Schwarzenegger has also demanded state buildings lower energy consumption 20 percent by 2015, create 40 percent of biofuels used in-state, and lower the carbon intensity of passenger vehicle fuels 10 percent by 2020.   Investor-owned utilities are also supposed get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, beginning this year. The deadline won't be met because the utilities aren't fined for failing to do until 2013. 

Schwarzenegger's record is more complicated than headlines would make it seem. 

     "It's very helpful to have a governor -- especially a Republican governor -- who says we can have a healthy economy and a clean environment at the time," said Bill Magavern, director of the California Sierra Club. "But, overall, Schwarzenegger's record is mixed. There's no question he's brought international attention to the global warming issue and extended California's leadership in fighting climate change but on many other environmental issues he's been too close to business."

Even Tamminen says he didn't always side with Schwarzenegger.

     "I don’t agree with all of his appointments or all of his decisions -- although nobody would  -- which is actually a testament to the fact he marched to his own drummer and stayed true to his own conscience and did what he thought was right for the state whether everyone else agreed."

Sometimes the GOP governor's actions were inconsistent.

For example, while championing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, Schwarzenegger also led the 2006 campaign to pass a $20 billion bond measure to ease congestion on state roads and highways, making it easier for commuters to drive. In several budgets, he has sharply reduced funds available for public transit -- a key way to get solo commuters out of their cars.

Although Schwarzenegger signed the legislation creating the Sierra Conservancy, he routinely put the state park system on the budget chopping block. In 2009, Schwarzenegger, an opponent of increased offshore oil drilling, proposed using the state's share of royalties from allowing more drilling, some $100 million, to pay for the parks.  After the British Petroleum leak in the Gulf Of Mexico, Schwarzenegger withdrew that proposal and left the future of 220 of the state's 278 parks uncertain. Lawmakers and the governor eventually struck a deal that maintains funding for the park system. 

Schwarzenegger declined to reappoint his brother-in-law, Bobby Shriver, and Clint Eastwood to the state Park and Recreation Commission after they led opposition to the GOP governor's plan to allow a six-lane toll road to cut through San Onofre State Beach. 

Budget cuts, although needed to close the state's massive cash hole, have also curtailed the state's ability to enforce environmental laws.  California's Department of  Fish and Game wardens cover a larger area per warden than any other state.

Schwarzenegger's Green Chemistry initiative, whose aim was to remove toxic or dangerous chemicals or materials from consumer products, has the potential to touch more aspects of the economy than AB 32.  The Department of Toxic Substances changed what were to be its final regulations on implementing the program on November 15. Business interests say the proposed program is now more reasonable. Magavern at the Sierra Club says the administration made a "complete 180."  

     "Some say his record is mixed, others would say it's hypocritical," said Martha Guzman, a lobbyist for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.  "On the same day the governor is promoting the elimination of plastic bags, he's authorizing the use of methyl iodide, one of the most toxic fumigants used in modern day."

Schwarzenegger has, however, been unwavering in his commitment to improve vehicle emission standards. While he didn't sign the so-called Pavley bill in 2002 that requires cars and trucks to emit 22 percent fewer greenhouse gases by 2012 and 30 percent fewer by 2016, he fought the Bush administration -- and automakers -- for five years to win its implementation.   In a deal brokered by President Obama, California's air quality standards will become those of the federal government in 2016. 

Overall, Schwarzenegger has used his celebrity to draw attention to issues like green jobs, climate change and renewable energy.   He continues to have a platform -- R20 -- Regions of Climate Action -- a concept he proposed last year that was inaugurated at his third Global Climate Summit this year.  The idea is to collaboratively build low-carbon and more climate friendly projects around the world, using public-private partnerships, one of the GOP governor's favorite concepts. 

     "I know he intends to use his position as founding chair of R20," said Tamminen. R20 is all about implementation. He can really use his breadth of contacts and celebrity to have an impact in influencing both policy makers and financial markets and companies. That's unique."

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