Arnold’s green legacy

Schwarzenegger has a decidedly mixed track record on the environment

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks at the third Governors’ Global Climate Summit last month at UC Davis.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks at the third Governors’ Global Climate Summit last month at UC Davis.


Last Thursday, December 9, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spent time doing one of the things he does best—anchoring a media event focusing on one of his favorite topics, green energy. In this case, the event—in which the GOP governor tightened bolts with a gold wrench—was the groundbreaking for San Diego Gas & Electric’s 117-mile Sunrise Powerlink transmission line whose aim is to move electricity created from renewable sources to urban areas.

“It’s very helpful to have a governor—especially a Republican governor—who says we can have a healthy economy and a clean environment at the same time,” said Bill Magavern, director of California Sierra Club. “But, overall, Schwarzenegger’s record is mixed. There’s no question he’s brought international attention to the global-warming issue and extended California’s leadership in fighting climate change, but on many other environmental issues, he has been too close to business and vetoed important bills.”

A look at Schwarzenegger’s green record does show some inconsistencies. In his press release touting the new transmission line, he says it “opens the door for additional green investments and job creation.” The release also notes the transmission line underwent a five-year environmental impact review but does not say that, as a result, the utility spent more than $175 million just to win state approval to begin construction which will likely be passed on to ratepayers.

California’s Jolly Green Governor is an ardent champion of ratcheting down greenhouse gases, known worldwide for his championing of Assembly Bill 32 to lower California’s emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. But, in 2006, he was the chief cheerleader for a $20 billion bond measure to ease congestion on state roads and highways, making it easier for commuters to drive. And he has gutted funding for public transit—a key way to get solo commuters out of their vehicles and, thereby, improve air quality.

Schwarzenegger signed 2004 legislation creating the Sierra Nevada Conservancy—at 25 million acres stretching from Kern County to the Oregon border, by far the state’s largest—and inked a deal with the Tejon Ranch in Southern California preserving roughly 90 percent of the 270,000 acre property. But Schwarzenegger routinely put the state park system on the budget chopping block and declined to reappoint his brother-in-law Bobby Shriver and Clint Eastwood to the State Park & Recreation Commission after their opposition to the GOP governor’s plan to allow a six-lane toll road to cut through San Onofre State Beach. Budget cuts, albeit necessary to close the state’s massive cash shortage, have also curtailed the state’s ability to enforce environmental laws. California’s Department of Fish and Game wardens cover a larger area per warden than those in any other state. Schwarzenegger opposed drilling off California’s coast, then backed an expansion of it, saying that royalties paid by oil companies would help reduce the 2009 state budget shortfall. After the BP debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, he returned to opposing an expansion of drilling.

Several of Schwarzenegger’s major green efforts don’t take effect until well after he leaves office, causing some doubt whether they will all come to fruition. A.B. 32, for instance, doesn’t really commence until 2012 and doesn’t conclude until 2020. Governor-elect Jerry Brown is a supporter, but he could leave office in 2014. State-owned buildings were ordered by Schwarzenegger to reduce energy use by 20 percent—by 2015. California must produce at least 40 percent of its own biofuels by 2020. Twenty percent of electricity provided by investor-owned utilities must come from renewable sources. The deadline for that is this year. It won’t be met, because the utilities aren’t fined for failing to do so until 2013. By 2020, 33 percent of the electricity is supposed to come from renewables.

Nevertheless, Schwarzenegger has been unwavering in his commitment to improve vehicle emissions standards. While he wasn’t yet governor when the so-called Pavley bill was signed in 2002, the law that requires cars and trucks to emit 22 percent fewer greenhouse gases by 2012 and 30 percent fewer by 2016, he fought the Bush administration—and automakers—for five years to win its implementation. In a deal brokered by President Barack Obama, California air-quality standards have essentially become those of the federal government, at least through 2016, when California creates a new set.

Schwarzenegger’s strength has been to draw attention to issues like green jobs and renewable energy. Because of that, and his celebrity, he has been touted as a good pick to be Obama’s “green czar.” Whether that transpires, it seems likely Schwarzenegger will continue to champion green causes and combat climate change perhaps through an institute or think tank. He has reportedly been in negotiations with the UC Davis on creating just that, but neither side confirms those talks publicly.

And perhaps most importantly, Schwarzenegger’s advocacy has sharply raised the bar on what constitutes strong “green” state policy.