Critics dispute Schwarzenegger’s status as environmental champion

[16 April 2007]

By Kevin Yamamura

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In the latest issue of Outside magazine, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wears an untucked green shirt and jeans, posing as a champion of the environment. He sits on a rock surrounded by a squirrel and rabbit and other creatures of the forest.

All while wearing his trademark boots made of dead animal skins.

Schwarzenegger has suddenly become an international global warming hero, albeit one with a penchant for Hummers and alligator boots.

California environmentalists still aren’t entirely sure what to make of him.

They praise Schwarzenegger for getting the public to focus on greenhouse gas emissions and using his political celebrity to shift national debate in a greenward direction. They say the governor has scored major accomplishments by signing a bill to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020 and pursuing new alternative fuel requirements.

But they have misgivings about the governor’s past opposition to top environmental priorities. They say the governor has focused on long-term plans that may not require real sacrifices for years. Yet he has opposed more immediate environmental solutions as too costly to businesses.

“It seems to me his (modus operandi) is to say people don’t have to sacrifice right now,” said Rico Mastrodonato, Northern California director of the League of Conservation Voters. “He’s saying they can have their cake and eat it, too.”

The governor this week framed the environmental problem as one that can be solved by technology rather than changes in lifestyle. In speeches at Georgetown University and the Council on Foreign Relations, he described how he wants to turn environmentalism into an inclusive cause rather than one fueled by guilt.

That message has paid off in publicity. Newsweek last week featured a smiling Schwarzenegger on its cover with the earth balancing on his fingertip. And when the MTV show “Pimp My Ride” sought a celebrity guest for its Earth Day episode to retrofit a gas-guzzling muscle car with alternative fuel technology, it called on the governor.

Environmentalists believe the governor may be telling people what they want to hear while ignoring the reality that emissions reductions and cleaner air will not come easily or cheaply.

“I think he does a disservice to people to say we don’t have to change our habits,” said V. John White, an environmental lobbyist in Sacramento. “Not unlike nutrition, we need more of the healthy things and less of the unhealthy things. I got the sense the governor was saying you can lose weight without giving up the things you’re doing.”

Schwarzenegger’s environmental record isn’t as clear-cut as magazine covers make it seem.

While the governor won plaudits in Washington, his appointee to the State Lands Commission provided the lone vote for a liquefied natural gas project off the Southern California coast that was fiercely opposed by environmentalists. The governor’s office said the vote was intended to allow the project to go through further review and not indicative of Schwarzenegger’s final position.

And despite the governor’s stated goals of reducing greenhouse gases, he proposed a $1 billion shift in gas tax revenues away from transit in his proposed budget this year.

Schwarzenegger’s staunch opposition to fees led to his veto last year of a $30-per-container charge at congested Southern California ports to reduce pollution, a major priority backed by almost every major environmental group. It was opposed by the California Chamber of Commerce and California Farm Bureau, who contribute heavily to the governor’s campaigns.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, author of the vetoed ports bill, gave Schwarzenegger credit for speaking out against global warming. “However, he missed the boat on a crisis we have right here,” Lowenthal said. “We have diesel pollution and thousands of deaths right here in Southern California.”

The governor, in his veto message, said he instead pursued $1 billion in ports funding in his public works bonds last year. He also suggested that the container fee would hurt exports.

Terry Tamminen, the governor’s former environmental adviser, said Schwarzenegger was concerned that the $30 container fee was too arbitrary and that the bill lacked a sufficient plan for spending the money.

Schwarzenegger also opposed a $4 billion ballot initiative to fund alternative energy research through a tax on oil extraction. Oil companies spent heavily to defeat it while Silicon Valley and Hollywood multimillionaires supported it, as did the state’s environmentalists.

Dan Skopec, undersecretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency, noted that the governor has called for a low-carbon fuel standard to meet goals similar to the alternative energy initiative.

“Just because (the initiative) was something supported by the environmental community doesn’t mean it was the best approach toward achieving that stated goal,” Skopec said.

In 2004, Schwarzenegger supported an initiative to limit the grounds on which a person could file lawsuits, a business-backed proposal to reduce frivolous cases. But environmentalists charged the governor had helped strip them of a tool to sue polluters, as in a 1998 case that led to the removal of harmful MTBE from gasoline.

“He has consistently been very close to the Chamber of Commerce and other big business lobbies,” said Bill Magavern of the Sierra Club. “On the one hand, I give him credit in some instances, such as (the greenhouse gas law), for breaking with them. But if you look at his record, he’s been with those lobbies almost all the time.”

The governor also faced criticism in 2005 for replacing the entire Reclamation Board, the state’s top flood-control agency. The board had begun using the California Environmental Quality Act more aggressively to block developers from building near levees, and critics charged that Schwarzenegger was helping homebuilders who had contributed to him.

Some environmentalists have criticized the governor’s call this year for two new dam projects to increase water storage. The governor has said such projects have become even more necessary because global warming has hastened snow runoff.

But Schwarzenegger worked with environmentalists when he signed legislation to create the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to help protect 25 million acres in the state’s eastern mountain range.

The governor also backed a $2.9 billion plan to provide rebates for rooftop solar panels through 2016 that was approved last year by the Public Utilities Commission.

In 2004, he signed an executive order to create a “Hydrogen Highway” that would establish fueling stations every 20 miles by 2010. So far, the state has only about two dozen pumps in the state, mostly located in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

White called the governor’s environmental record “a complicated story.” Like other environmentalists, he said the governor was impressive for a Republican. He suggested the governor looks best when he’s on a national stage.

“In the speech this week, where he told Detroit to get off your butts,” White said, “it’s like, when he speaks in those tones, he speaks for all Californians and we’re all behind him.”

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