SB 375 Frenzy May Be Short-Lived

 

It’s the last week of the California Legislature’s session, and we’re still on the SB 375 watch.

SB 375 is, of course, Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s bill that would implement the AB 32 greenhouse gas emissions reduction bill by tying state transportation and infrastructure money to regional plans to create “sustainability communities.” It has been years since California Planning & Development Report has covered a bill this much.

Last year, the bill got almost all the way through the Legislature before Steinberg pulled it at the last minute. Ever since, it has been the focus of extensive negotiations among builders, local governments, and environmentalists. Last week, proponents announced a deal had been done – but this may have been wishful thinking.

The reason for all this hullabaloo is that all the experts agree the state can’t hit the greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets in AB 32 through technological fixes alone, and that 10-15% of the solution has to come from changing growth patterns in a way that reduces overall driving. This attention to land use has given smart growth advocates and environmentalists an opening in Sacramento, but it’s not something that builders or local governments really want to hear.

We assume SB 375 will pass in some form, setting off a frenzy of activity in California on how to implement the legislation. But it’s worth noting that the whole AB 32 thing might be short-lived. No matter who is elected president in November, it’s likely that a federal greenhouse gas reduction bill will pass that could override AB 32. Even if there is no new federal legislation, it’s likely that the next administration – of whichever party – will likely give California more leeway on technological solutions.

For example, the state has run into trouble with the Bush administration on tougher fuel economy standards. California asked the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver permitting the state to impose tougher standards than the feds – the kind of action that the EPA has routinely granted in the past for tailpipe emissions. Surprisingly, the EPA pushed back, saying that greenhouse gas emissions, unlike other air pollution, creates a global problem rather than a local one and therefore California should not get the waiver. Schwarzenegger and Bush remain at loggerheads on that one, but even a McCain administration might back off.

It’s also worth noting that in the last 20 to 25 years, California has been very successful at being on the cutting-edge of technological fixes such as cleaner-running cars and energy conservation. On a per-capita basis, the state is among the most electricity-efficient places in the world, and builders are moving quickly toward green building practices.

On smart growth, however, California has been behind the curve. And it may be that the state is such a crazy quilt of interests on growth that we’ll stay behind the curve. If the state can’t get its arms around the question of growth patterns, that will put more pressure on the technological improvements.

– Bill Fulton