Oil Firms Bankroll Calif. Climate-Change Measure

A car pulls into a Valero gas station in Sacramento, Calif.

Texas-based Valero Energy -- which owns gas stations across the country, like this one in Sacramento,Calif. -- has contributed about half of the roughly $10 million behind California's Proposition 23 campaign. Rich Pedroncelli/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In California, voters will decide Tuesday whether to put the state's landmark climate-change law on hold until the jobless rate there goes down.

The ballot measure known as Proposition 23 is being bankrolled mostly by oil companies. Supporters aren't saying that global warming is a good thing — or that it doesn't exist. Their arguments have mainly been about economic effects.

The unemployment rate in California is more than 12 percent right now, and that's what seems to worry the woman in one ad in favor of the proposition:

"I want to do my part on global warming," she says. "All yes on 23 says is let's wait until people are back to work and we can afford it. Yes on 23 — it's common sense."

And here's another bit of common sense, says Anita Mangels, communications director for Yes on 23: "California acting alone can't do anything to reduce global warming."

But California has a long tradition of being a trendsetter in environmental matters, and the global warming law that Proposition 23 would suspend is just the latest example. It would require the state to roll back carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the next decade.

Getting there would mean instituting a cap-and-trade system, in which businesses that emit large amounts of carbon would have to pay for the privilege.

Bill Day, a spokesman for Texas-based Valero Energy, says it would definitely hit oil refiners in the wallet.

"If you assume a carbon credit of $20 per ton — which is a very conservative estimate, by the way," he says, "you're talking millions of dollars per year in costs to a company like Valero."

Valero has a couple of refineries and lots of gas stations in California, and the company has contributed about half of the roughly $10 million behind the Proposition 23 campaign.

"We thought Californians deserved a chance to vote. They can decide whether this is a good time to implement these measures or not," Day says.

It's not uncommon in California for so-called citizens' initiatives to be funded by large corporations. Their millions usually dwarf their opponents' funds.

But not this time. Opponents of Proposition 23 have raised about three times as much money, with a donor list including Bill Gates, Avatar director James Cameron and some of California's top venture capitalists. And one of the strongest voices against Proposition 23 is a voice that everyone knows: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Right now, I am together with the Democrats, with the environmentalists, with the business leaders," he recently told the crowd at a women's conference.

Global warming is one of Schwarzenegger's signature issues. But many Proposition 23 opponents hardly bring it up.

A commercial running on Spanish-language TV stations features Dr. Luis Pacheco in his white lab coat, explaining that California's global warming law will protect children's health.

The commercial was presented first at a press conference called by Latino business interests in Los Angeles opposed to Proposition 23. Ruben Guerra, head of the Latin Business Association, resented having to do battle to defend a law that was passed four years ago almost as much as he resented the Texas oil interests that have bankrolled the measure.

"They don't care that they're job killers, they don't care that they're hope killers, and they don't care that they're dream killers," he said.

Those dreams are about dollar signs. Guerra said the global-warming law will fuel the growth of green technology.

"The renewable-energy sector is something that can really help our community, the business community, grow and thrive in California," he said.

Recent polls show that California voters are likely to reject Proposition 23, siding with their tradition of trailblazing environmentalism, regardless of the state's hard times.

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