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An Interview with Fran Pavley

Joel Krupa

© Penguin Books Ltd.

California State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Santa Monica) is one of the most progressive environmental legislators in America. Her notable accomplishments include authoring AB 1493 (a bill that made California the first state to drastically mandate the reduction of tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions) and AB 32 (a bill that requires, among other things, electric utilities to produce 33% of their power through renewables and mandates a cap-and-trade programme for emissions). These pioneering climate change laws have subsequently been adopted in other jurisdictions in the United States and within several provinces in Canada.

How dangerous is the lack of a comprehensive federal energy and climate change policy to America’s long-term economic prosperity?

This ongoing process is both dangerous and short-sighted. I think that we need Washington to reframe the debate away from climate change and energy security as “Sierra Club issues” and move toward encouraging the public to think of these sorts of issues as national security risks and economic liabilities. Business as usual is infeasible and will present a growing economic challenge to the world in coming years. Fortunately, it seems that lots of non-traditional proponents of better policy are emerging. For example, I have held focus sessions with senior military commanders at major bases in the western United States. These individuals, all of whom vary across the spectrum of political backgrounds, clearly iterated to me in our talks that there are substantiated links between climate change, energy security, and fossil fuel sources. Remember, these military leaders know that 60% of all our oil comes from foreign sources – and many of these countries do not have our best interests in mind.

Given that the United States’s aging grid infrastructure is poorly suited to handling decentralized renewable energy generation and that fossil fuel industries are often resistant to the development of alternative energy technologies, what role do you envision for renewable energy in the United States’s long-term energy mix?

It must be part of the energy mix, there is no question about that. It is only a matter of how much. We want a clean and secure energy future for California and the country as a whole, but we do not want to pick a winner or favour a particular resource for subsidies/support. There are progressive policy measures that can be implemented to compensate for some of the inhibiting factors that you mentioned in the question. For example, we currently have a renewable energy portfolio standard that requires that utilities purchase 20% of their energy from clean energy sources by 2020. AB 32, a bill that I was heavily involved in, ramps it up to 33% in the near future and engages the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Air Resources Board – an integrated approach that is essential. I think that there are serious challenges, so clever policy backing will be needed if renewables are to realize their potential.

California’s Proposition 23, often referred to as the “dirty oil proposition” for its rollback of AB 32, was recently defeated by California voters. It was financed heavily by wealthy out-of-state fossil fuel interests which tried to tell voters that they should not concern themselves with environmental policy in the midst of a major recession. Is this result an isolated California phenomenon, or does it have broader applicability to future US energy policy by clearly showing that Americans are getting serious about reducing energy dependency and fossil fuel-related environmental degradation?

Well, a clean energy future is certain to spur economic advances, so let me say that any emphasis on the recession from the out-of-state interests was likely misplaced. Incredible innovators and entrepreneurs from across California are proving that it is possible to develop strong alternative energy capacity here that encourages innovation, provides jobs, and gives us cleaner air. Thousands of new businesses and job opportunities will be created in the emerging green sector, from weatherizing to research to engineering. Economic growth and environmental sustainability are not necessarily contradictory and people recognize that, as evidenced in this result. In California, pretty much everyone is onboard with letting the market decide about the best decisions for energy, with state support to level the playing field with fossil fuels. This is contrasted with some federal decisions, such as the incredible subsidies currently offered to corn ethanol (politically popular in certain parts of the country but not necessarily the most environmentally benign). We are seeing conflicting signals, so there is no consensus on what this result means outside of California.

But as the “Saudi Arabia of coal”, the United States possesses vast fossil fuel sources. At this key inflection point, how should these resources be developed? Should the country focus on its domestic energy strengths, regardless of the environmental toll?

One of the most difficult things facing the US is the transition period. These resources will inevitably be at least partially extracted, so we need to find cost-effective and environmentally benign solutions in the short-term and long-term. We have lots of states that are very reliant on fossil fuel industries and it isn’t possible to just abandon them altogether. Here in California, we don’t have coal-fired plants and we passed a law a number of years ago that prohibits us from buying coal from nearby sources. There isn’t huge support for offshore oil here either. Yet it is a tough question – how do we reduce dependence on coal and other fossil fuels while simultaneously ramping up renewable deployment? In particular, I am largely focused on, and interested in, energy efficiency. We are already at a good place in this hugely important area, as California uses less energy per capita than virtually any other state. We have learned in California that investing in energy efficiency is far less expensive than bringing new generation onboard.

Other countries are interested in coordination and sharing of ideas and we are willing to share it. In particular, we are going to experiment with new policy mechanisms in the future – feed-in tariffs, distributed generation from clean sources like the run of the river hydro in British Columbia (Canada) – so I think that there are alternatives to business as usual and domestic fossil fuel resources are not always the best option.

Joel Krupa graduated in 2010 with an MSc in Environmental Policy from Mansfield College, Oxford.