Climate change, which serves as the all-purpose villain for every adverse event today, is the driving force behind California’s energy policies. Whether in response to summer drought and wildfires, winter rains and mudslides, or alleged price-gouging by climate-denying oil companies, the state has adopted energy policies that will supposedly vanquish climate change, much as Hollywood’s heroes vanquish evildoers.
The state’s history of climate-related regulation extends back two decades. In 2004, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order directing state agencies to build a hydrogen-fueling network on state highways by 2010. It never happened. Today, 53 such stations are in operation, concentrated around the Bay Area and Los Angeles, to serve the approximately 10,000 hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles in the state. The average cost to build each station was about $2 million. That works out to about $10,000 per vehicle, excluding the cost of the hydrogen itself.
The following year, Schwarzenegger established the first greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets, which required the state to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The state met the 2020 goal and more, with total emissions of just 369 million metric tons.
In 2007, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order imposing a state renewable fuel standard (RFS) requiring a 10 percent reduction in the carbon intensity of all transportation fuels. The RFS was later amended to require a 20 percent reduction in carbon intensity by 2030. In effect, the RFS acts as a requirement for producing biofuels, such as ethanol, and electric vehicles.
Legislation to reduce GHGs began in earnest in 2016 with SB 32, which required a 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2030. In 1990, energy-related GHG emissions totaled 387 million metric tons, equivalent to just over 1 percent of the 34 billion metric tons of world emissions in 2021. Moreover, world GHG emissions have been increasing annually by an average of more than 400 million metric tons since 2010, and by an average of almost 500 million metric tons since 2000. So, even if California reduced its emissions to zero tomorrow, it would offset less than one year’s growth in world emissions and make no measurable impact on the climate.
More recent legislation established a goal of a 55 percent reduction in GHG emissions below 1990 levels by 2030 and an 85 percent reduction in all GHG emissions no later than 2045. It also requires “zero-emissions” electricity by 2045, which means that the state’s electricity needs will have to be met with wind and solar power, with a dollop of geothermal and hydroelectric power thrown in.
To meet these goals—which, again, will have no measurable impact on world climate—the state’s politicians and regulators have enacted a smorgasbord of bans on almost everything that uses fossil fuels. The sale of new internal-combustion cars and light trucks will be banned beginning in 2035; the ban on the sale of large diesel trucks starts in 2045. (On January 1 of this year, the ban on operating diesel trucks with engines manufactured before 2010 took effect.) And, though the recent imbroglio over a nationwide ban on the sale of gas stoves has settled down, California has enacted just such a ban, which takes effect in 2030. In that same year, the state will prohibit new gas furnaces and water heaters, and a ban on both the sale and use of gas-powered small engines (for example, lawnmowers, chainsaws, and portable generators) begins next year.
And what good are bans on the “bad” without corresponding mandates for the “good?” In addition to the mandate for 100 percent zero-emissions electricity by 2045, in 2020, the state required that all new single-family homes and low-rise apartments must have solar panels. A similar mandate for all new high-rise buildings took effect on January 1 of this year.
Not satisfied with all these new strictures, in November 2022 the California Air Resources Board presented its all-encompassing Scoping Plan to achieve “carbon neutrality.” This plan inserts itself into virtually every aspect of individuals’ daily lives, from designing communities that “encourage” people to walk and bike to eliminating meat and dairy consumption. The plan acknowledges that achieving the goals will require inventing technologies that don’t yet exist, including burning “green” hydrogen (that is, hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water using wind and solar power) in industrial facilities, such as those that manufacture cement. The plan even requires developing technologies for sucking millions of tons of carbon directly out of the air.
How much all of this will cost remains unknown, though the plan cites studies showing the state and the country can achieve carbon neutrality and save money in the process. But such studies are based on assumptions and projections that lack credibility. Indeed, the plan seems almost to admit this, stating that its work is “fundamentally based on hope.”
It’s well and good to have hope for the future and for new technologies. But implementing strict mandates based on nothing but wishful thinking is unrealistic. Nothing the state does to reduce GHG emissions will reduce catastrophic wildfires, which in the past five to seven years have been caused primarily by Pacific Gas & Electric’s failure to maintain its transmission and distribution system—including the disastrous 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and for which PG&E pled guilty to manslaughter. Nothing the state does to reduce emissions will reduce periodic droughts or flooding from heavy rains.
But the state’s energy policies have accomplished something concrete: damaging California’s economy and immiserating millions of its residents. Not for nothing does the state have the highest average electricity price in the 48 contiguous states and the highest average prices for gasoline and diesel fuel. Residents and businesses are unsurprisingly fleeing. And the state’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors have been devastated.
California’s unwillingness to confront energy, environmental, and economic realities would be almost comical were it not for the increasingly ruinous costs of its green policies, especially for the poor. In 1971, when Boeing was reeling economically, a billboard in Seattle famously read, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?” California may not have to wait for that to happen. More likely, the lights will turn off by themselves.
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