Major votes intensify California climate controversies
If there’s one thing Thursday made clear, it’s that climate policy and controversy go hand in hand in California.
Depending on whom you ask, the two major actions state regulators took Thursday are either indicative of California “leading the world’s most significant economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution” (as Gov. Gavin Newsom put it) or represent “a complete retreat from California’s unrivaled position of leadership in the clean energy revolution” (as Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, described the state’s new rooftop solar rules).
What are those new rules? In the final installment of what some have described as “a kind of solar rooftop Hunger Games,” the California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to overhaul the state’s 27-year-old residential solar rules — reducing payments to homeowners for excess power but providing nearly $1 billion in incentives to encourage more solar projects for low-income homes, CalMatters’ Julie Cart reports.
Almost all of the comments delivered during the intense, hours-long meeting were in opposition — and neither utility companies nor solar advocates emerged happy.
- Kathy Fairbanks, spokesperson for Affordable Clean Energy for All, a coalition that includes California’s three largest utility companies: “This final decision was a missed opportunity that will prolong the harm to low-income Californians and renters for decades to come.”
- Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar & Storage Association: The new rules “will result in business closures and the loss of green jobs.”
- Public Utilities Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen: “The decision strikes the right balance between many competing priorities and advances our overarching goals of ensuring California meets its climate and clean energy goals equitably.”
The divisive vote comes as California races to shore up its fragile energy grid — which narrowly escaped rolling blackouts this summer and remains at high risk of energy shortfalls during peak demand, according to a Thursday report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation — while simultaneously relying more on solar power as part of its plan for achieving carbon neutrality.
Just how fast will that transition be? Well, the sweeping, ambitious blueprint approved unanimously by the California Air Resources Board calls for slashing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 48% below 1990 levels by 2030, up from the 40% reduction currently required by state law.
To meet the plan’s targets, state officials estimate that California over the next 20 years will need about 30 times more electric vehicles, six times more household electric appliances and four times more wind and solar generation capacity, CalMatters’ Nadia Lopez reports. The estimated cost: $18 billion in 2035 and $27 billion in 2045.
- Air Resources Board Member Daniel Sperling: “This is an extraordinary exercise and document, and it’s the most comprehensive, detailed plan for getting to net zero anywhere in the world.”
- But many members of the public who spoke during the eight-hour meeting opposed the plan’s reliance on carbon capture, a controversial strategy to capture emissions from oil refineries and other facilities and inject the carbon deep into rocks underground. Critics say that approach merely prolongs the lifespan of fossil fuel plants.
- Olivia Seideman, a climate policy advocate at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability: “California’s shiny new climate strategies still sacrifice low-income and communities of color with increased pollution across the state.”
A few other climate nuggets of interest:
- In the latest indication that California will likely spend a fourth straight year mired in drought, the state is launching a $25 million pilot program to pay farmers who fallow their land or limit groundwater pumping in vulnerable communities that rely on wells for drinking water. Its partners on the project include the Almond Alliance of California, the Western United Dairies Foundation, Self-Help Enterprises and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, according to the Modesto Bee.
- Today, California tribes and environmental groups are set to file a federal complaint urging regulators to investigate “the State Water Resources Board’s discriminatory water management policies and practices in the Bay-Delta,” the critical water hub where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers meet to flow out into the San Francisco Bay. The groups also want the feds to revamp water quality standards for the Bay-Delta. They filed a similar petition to the state water board in May, which they said the board “largely ignored.”
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Other Stories You Should Know
1 COVID workplace rules get a big overhaul
California businesses will no longer have to pay COVID-infected workers to stay home under rules approved Thursday by Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency — a development applauded by industry groups and opposed by labor unions and worker safety advocates. The new regulations, which are set to take effect early next year and last for two years, are the latest example of California winding down its pandemic policies ahead of a scheduled Feb. 28 expiration of the COVID state of emergency. State data updated Thursday shows that California’s COVID test positivity and death rates are beginning to tick down after a late-fall surge, though hospitalizations are still on the rise.
- Employers no longer have to screen their employees for COVID symptoms; instead, workers are encouraged to self-report them.
- Companies no longer have to notify local public health departments about workplace cases and outbreaks, though the agencies could require them to. A bill that would have required this information to be shared publicly died in the state Legislature.
- There are new definitions for such COVID buzzwords as “close contact” and “infectious period.”
Another California COVID policy coming to an end: a law requiring large employers to offer workers as much as 80 hours of COVID-related paid sick leave. The program expires Dec. 31, but Californians can continue to receive the benefit into January as long as they start a claim by the deadline — and can also request retroactive payments if they took unpaid or underpaid leave between Jan. 1 and Feb. 19, 2022, according to the Chronicle. Moving forward, infected Californians may be eligible for other benefits, such as disability insurance or workers’ compensation.
2 Chronic absenteeism jumps in California schools
From CalMatters education reporter Joe Hong: Chronic absenteeism in California’s K-12 public schools was way, way up last school year, data released Thursday by the state Department of Education shows. This spike in chronic absences isn’t surprising, especially considering that the omicron surge of early 2022 wreaked havoc on both student and staff attendance.
But the California School Dashboard — which was rebooted Thursday for the first time in three years after a pandemic pause — shows that nearly a third of all students missed at least 18 days out of a typical 180-day school year in 2021, three times as much as in 2019. (On Wednesday, the education department issued guidance to help local school districts address chronic absenteeism.)
- And student absences were just one of many disruptions to education last year: As Joe has reported, even if students were in class, there’s a good chance their teachers were out and substitutes were unavailable, especially for schools in high-poverty communities. One result: California student test scores plummeted, even as some achievement gaps narrowed.
- Susan Markarian, president of the California School Boards Association, said in a statement the dashboard “underscores the need for continued investment in public education. Many of the issues facing schools are generational in nature and will extend beyond the timeline of emergency relief funding.”
You can search for your school or district on the state’s dashboard, which includes a variety of data points. Suspension rates, for example, remained stable statewide since 2019, while four-year graduation rates increased by 2 percentage points to 87%. But, state education officials acknowledged, some of that increase was likely due to a 2020-21 state law that — in an attempt to “give a boost to students most impacted by COVID-19” — allowed some letter grades to be changed to pass/no pass and exempted from some local graduation requirements high school juniors and seniors who weren’t on track to graduate in four years.
3 California wildfire updates
California’s wildfire season this year may have been mild, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t wildfire news:
- Firefighters working for Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, have agreed to a new contract that will slash six hours off their 72-hour minimum workweek — but not until 2024, CalMatters’ Julie Cart reports. In a stunning four-part investigation published in June, Julie exposed how California’s lengthening wildfire season and intensifying blazes have spurred a mental health epidemic at Cal Fire, with many firefighters struggling with PTSD and suicidal thoughts. “Nothing for the next two years will relieve those stresses,” Tim Edwards, president of Cal Fire Union Local 2881, told Julie. The shortened workweek could also potentially be imperiled by the state’s projected budget deficit.
- Cal Fire for the first time in 15 years has released an updated map of California’s wildfire hazard severity zones — and, unsurprisingly, fire risks have increased since 2007. The map, however, only tracks wildfire hazards in unincorporated, rural parts of the state. Californians can weigh in on the map in a series of public hearings across the state.
- The PG&E Fire Victim Trust — set up to compensate tens of thousands of victims of wildfires caused by PG&E equipment — is emphasizing its progress after a series of damaging reports. A 2021 KQED investigation found the trust had been slow to pay victims and quick to rack up big bills for lawyers and consultants. In April, one of the trust’s lobbyists departed amid allegations of sexual harassment. And in August a Los Angeles Times investigation linked the trust’s former trustee to disgraced California lawyer Tom Girardi, who was accused of stealing millions of dollars from his clients. But the trust’s new trustee, Cathy Yanni, issued a sunny press release Thursday announcing that 60 million PG&E shares had been sold to raise $908 million in cash for the trust, among other milestones. Questions remain, however, as to whether the trust will actually be able to make victims whole, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports.
California should be immensely proud of nuclear fusion breakthrough: The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s fusion achievement illuminates a new path for clean energy. It also cements California’s role as a world leader in cutting-edge science and technology, writes Robert Powell, a distinguished professor at UC Davis.
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Editorial: California’s water future mirrors housing disaster. // Mercury News