In summary

A new California law to eliminate gasoline-powered lawn equipment sounds reasonable, but it messes with the lives of small landscapers.

Lea este artículo en español.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature on Assembly Bill 1346 makes one wonder whether California politicians ever fully understand — or even want to understand — the ramifications of their decisions.

The measure aims to eliminate the sales of gasoline-powered lawn equipment, such as mowers, string trimmers, leaf blowers and other devices, within a few years.

The purpose, it’s said, is to eliminate the exhaust emissions from small engines that create smog and contribute to global warming.

The bill’s author, Assemblyman Marc Berman, a Menlo Park Democrat, contends that “operating the best-selling, gas-powered commercial leaf blower for one hour emits air pollutants comparable to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry from Los Angeles to Denver. Smog-forming emissions from small engines will surpass those from passenger vehicles this year.”

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

D

Marc Berman

State Assembly, District 24 (Los Altos)

How they voted 2019-2020
Liberal Conservative
District 24 Demographics

Race/Ethnicity

Latino 19%
White 44%
Asian 30%
Black 2%
Multi-race 4%

Voter Registration

Dem 54%
GOP 14%
No party 29%
Other 3%

One could add that the gas-powered lawn machines also emit jarring levels of noise.

Under AB 1346, the California Air Resources Board will decide how and when sales of gas-powered devices will be prohibited and it could be as early as 2024. A shift to battery-powered machines presumably would occur as older devices need replacement.

Tools powered by rechargeable batteries are convenient, quiet and relatively inexpensive to operate and make perfect sense for the homeowner. Personally, I’ve used them almost exclusively for the past quarter century and wouldn’t have it any other way.

That said, what’s practical for personal use is not necessarily so for lawn care professionals, most of them single persons or small crews, and often immigrants. It’s estimated that California has at least 50,000 such microbusinesses.

Mowing a lawn once a week is one thing, but pros do it a dozen or more times a day to keep their families housed and fed. They would have to not only buy the equipment but dozens of batteries and chargers and have the facilities, including sufficient electric power supplies, to recharge those batteries.

Backers of the legislation, a coalition of public health and environmental groups, would let the Air Resources Board figure out the details. There’s the possibility of a $30 million fund to help buy new equipment.

The arithmetic, however, indicates that the proposed conversion would cost much more than that, either borne by the lawn services or taxpayers.

Andrew Bray, vice president of the National Association of Landscape Professionals, told the Los Angeles Times that “a three-person landscaping crew will need to carry 30 to 40 fully charged batteries to power its equipment during a full day’s work,” adding, “These companies are going to have to completely retrofit their entire workshops to be able to handle this massive change in voltage so they’re going to be charged every day.”

The larger landscape companies that Bray represents could make the switch and adjust their fees accordingly. But how about the little guys?

A basic array of high-quality, battery-powered lawn tools — a mower, a trimmer and a blower — would cost at least $1,000. Enough spare batteries and chargers would at least double the initial cost. So at a minimum, with 50,000 lawn services, the total cost would be $100 million. The real world cost would likely be a quarter-billion dollars or more.

Even were the state willing to cover replacements, how about the infrastructure that small landscapers, operating out of their homes, would need to recharge their batteries? Would we be putting them through a daunting application process? Would the many undocumented landscapers submit the paperwork?

Newsom and the legislators who voted for this bill may think they are doing the right thing, but did they ever consider that they are messing with people’s livelihoods and lives? Nothing in the bill indicates they did.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: commentary@calmatters.org

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...