Next California governor key for climate change

SAN FRANCISCO Thu Oct 14, 2010 6:58pm EDT

California Air Resources Board chairman Mary Nichols gestures during the Reuters Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco, California October 13, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

California Air Resources Board chairman Mary Nichols gestures during the Reuters Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco, California October 13, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Robert Galbraith

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A California ballot proposition to put the state's landmark climate change law on hold for years has overshadowed the environmental role of the next governor, which could prove to be more important.

Republican Meg Whitman, and Democrat Jerry Brown, contenders in the November 2 election for governor, appear to be completely divided on California's climate change agenda for the next few years, although that's not necessarily the case.

Whitman wants a pause of at least a year for the landmark 2006 climate law AB32 to "freeze it and fix it", saying it costs jobs. Brown sees it as stimulus for a major new industry that has become a big part of his campaign -- and the basis of California's reputation as the U.S. leader on climate change.

Brown had a slight lead in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, while late September polls varied on the outlook for suspending climate change regulations, showing a dead heat or a loss for Proposition 23.

Both candidates oppose Prop 23, which would put AB32 on hold until double-digit inflation recedes to 5.5 percent or less for four straight quarters, which is expected to take years.

Whitman's Silicon Valley background, her recent declaration that she is against Prop 23 and her drive for new jobs have some in the alternative energy industry hopeful that the pause she advocates would not be dramatic.

"She seems to have hopefully backed off from rolling things back," said John Woolard, chief executive of solar thermal power developer BrightSource Energy, which has just received permits for a Southern California plant.

"It's hard to tell," he added while speaking to the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit.

"Brown is clearer about what he is for," he said. "He's ready to roll up his sleeves -- I think he's unambiguous."

RENEWABLES ELECTRICITY GOAL SAFE

Anita Mangels, spokeswoman for Proposition 23, takes a starkly different view.

"If there is one thing Meg Whitman has made clear, it is that AB32 is a job killer and it needs to be suspended," she said.

California's law requires that greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to 1990 levels by 2020, and a host of programs have risen under that umbrella, from requiring the state get a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020 to a greenhouse gas market due to begin in 2012.

The law allows the governor to suspend regulations in part or full for up to a year at a time "in the event of extraordinary circumstances, catastrophic events, or threat of significant economic harm."

Whitman has said she would suspend the law, but she does support at least one key target set under the AB32 authority -- the goal of getting a third of the state's electricity from renewables.

She also advocates streamlining regulation, including for new transmission lines.

"It is hard for me to believe that any governor, no matter who would want to suspend everything that's in place now under AB32," said Mary Nichols, the current climate change chief for the state as chairman of the Air Resources Board, told the Summit.

Still she expects the courts might have the last word.

"Even if it is suspended administratively, there is a possibility that someone may sue the governor's office over the legality of the suspension," she said, noting that a legal challenge might ask: "Was it really an emergency?"

(Editing by Mary Milliken, Bernard Orr))

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