Senate pro Tem Kevin de León is California’s first Latino Senate leader in more than 130 years. He has championed an aggressive agenda centered on transitioning the state away from fossil fuels and toward a low-carbon, high renewable energy economy. We sat down with him recently to discuss that transition.
You are one of the driving forces behind California’s ongoing efforts to combat global climate change by adopting some of the most aggressive renewable energy goals in the world. But critics say this will harm our economy and disproportionately impact rural and poorer regions around the state. You say just the opposite. Why?
BIO: Regionalization of the Power Grid: An independent system operator, or ISO, controls a state’s electrical power grid and is almost always located solely within one state. In 2013, for the first time ever, Cal ISO allowed an out-of-state operator — a Nevada co-op named Valley Electric Association — to join its ranks. That move potentially opens the doors to operators in other western states to join as well, which could regionalize the power grid and help California sell renewable energy to other states.
Back in 2006 when we passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, the naysayers preached the same cataclysmic scenario. They said it would destroy the economy, that it was naïve and unrealistic to set targets that were unreachable. But here we are in 2015, well on our way to reaching those targets and with our economy growing faster than any other state in the union. We have added more jobs than any other state — many of them in the renewable sector, including energy efficiency, insulation, sensored lighting, the solar portfolio, wind. In Kern County, which is an oil extraction county, the only portfolio where employment is actually rising is in wind and solar. And it is a reality that fossil fuels are damaging the economy, even here in California. If we break down the data, parts of the Bay Area feel like the Gilded Age. Although there are pockets of poverty in Southern California, especially my district, the economy of Los Angeles is starting to take off. San Diego and Orange County, largely because of the biotech companies, have very strong economies. And then you look at the Inland Empire and the Central Valley and see those economies have not felt a positive economic resurgence. They also have the worst air quality in the nation. I’m not a scientist, and I can’t say the historic drought that we’re suffering is all due to climate change, but high emissions of carbon into the atmosphere are likely exacerbating this scarcity of water and the unemployment rate in the Central Valley. So those who critique this vision of a new economy have it backward.
A handful of other governments have joined California in this effort, but do we have enough partners in this effort to seriously reduce the impacts of climate change?
I had the privilege to represent the California delegation at the Conference of Parties 20 — the United Nations framework convention on climate change in Lima, Peru — in early December 2014. It was very startling to me how many ministers of the environment of various countries wanted to have private sidebar meetings with me. They all wanted to know what was next for California’s climate change policies. So I can assure you that the world is watching us. Now, I think it is a fair critique to say we can’t do it alone. This is a global issue, not a regional or state issue. With the potential regionalization of the ISO power grid* and exportation of our renewable energy to other states, we do have the potential to integrate other states into our economy and vice versa. We’re already connected through the cap-and-trade program with Quebec and Ontario**, and we’re at the cusp of integrating our cap-and-trade scheme with more states and other countries. We’re not going to do it alone.
Many of your Republican colleagues contend that California is overburdened with environmental regulations that employers in states like Nevada and Texas do not face. Is it possible for business and the environment to co-exist peacefully?
Balancing the needs of the environment and growing this economy can coexist — because they have to. We have no other choice. When people use the battle for Tesla as an example of California’s regulatory environment being too cumbersome, they miss the point. It’s a simplistic argument. We have more manufacturing in California than any other state in the country, and Tesla’s manufacturing plant in Fremont is the largest in the state. Elon Musk is a very intelligent man, and he was looking for the best deal he could get for his gigafactory. He had states tripping over themselves to offer as many tax credits as possible, with cash up front and free land. But here in California, the thesis behind a tax credit is to incentivize a certain type of behavior so that in return you get jobs that are tangible. That said, we unquestionably have to invest in business. I was the lead negotiator on the new film tax credit here in California. I didn’t like the current system because it was nonsensical. It was a lottery system. Studios and filmmakers were winning tax credits not by submitting the best possible deal but by a lottery. That made no sense. So you’ve got to quantify and verify and assess. You want to make the most prudent decision because you want your ROI to be greater than your investment. If it’s not, what was the point?
You’re a big supporter of high-speed rail. But Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor has said HSR could actually increase pollution, and the HSR folks themselves say the train will reduce auto travel by less than 1 percent. Why not spend the money on other, potentially more efficient projects?
I am a strong believer in high-speed rail. I just got back from Japan, and I had an opportunity to experience their public transportation system: light rail, standard rail, the subway and high-speed rail. And I walked away with one conclusion: They are light-years ahead of America. Because they made sage infrastructure investments, the Japanese have a network that is quite pervasive. They move people quickly from one part of the country to another in a very efficient, timely manner with less carbon emissions, and it pencils out monetarily. But here, HSR has become so politicized that it has clouded the real narrative. I am a believer in high-speed rail, and I support the governor’s vision.
We hear a lot about new efforts to reform or revise Prop. 13, California’s historic property tax law. Most of the revisions would increase costs for commercial and industrial properties. Where do you stand on this?
I have no position right now. I do think that revenue enhancement measures deserve a very serious debate, whether it’s a continuance or some variance of Proposition 30 or some other proposal. The tax structure is so archaic in California that we suffer through these incredible highs and lows like a roller-coaster. When it rains it pours, and then we’re swimming and muddy. When it doesn’t rain and we’re in a drought, a lot of people are hurt. So we need structural tax reform. But what and how is yet to be concluded, because structural tax reform means a lot of different things to different people. We should be discussing this in a way that doesn’t have stakeholders protecting their sacred cows at all costs and perpetuating narratives that quash the dialogue itself.
CAP-AND-TRADE PROGRAM WITH QUEBEC AND ONTARIO: Cap-and-Trade Program with Quebec and Ontario: California is part of a group called the Western Climate Initiative. Its purpose was to bring together several western states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada to form a bloc of jurisdictions with linked cap-and-trade programs. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Utah were all initially on board with the initiative, but by 2011 only California remained. In the past few years, California has partnered with Quebec and Ontario, and now Washington and Oregon are again showing interest.
Aside from the climate topic, you sometimes refer to “California exceptionalism.” What do you mean by that?
It’s a recognition of the rich and vibrant diversity of our state. Where other parts of the country are grappling with issues of diversity and race, we have embraced all individuals, irrespective of where they come from. That’s something quite unique about California. State senators each have, on average, 1 million constituents. I represent probably the most diverse district on the planet: Koreatown, which is the largest concentration of Koreans outside South Korea; Chinatown, Little Bangladesh, Filipinotown, Thai Town, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia and the largest concentration of Mexicans outside of the Republic of Mexico. I also represent the largest concentration of Central Americans outside of Central America, specifically Salvadorans and Guatemalans. When you see them all running their small businesses and driving the economy in my district, it’s exciting. I’m honored to represent them. That is a reflection of California that really shows the greatness of who we are as a community, as a people, as a state.
Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this story, we mistakenly reported that Valley Electric Association joined Cal ISO earlier this year, instead of 2013. We regret the error.