Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 29, 2010

Palo Alto leads charge against Proposition 23

Local officials, donations battle effort to suspend California's 2006 greenhouse-gas law

by Gennady Sheyner

The Palo Alto office of the "No on Proposition 23" campaign is conveniently located a few blocks from a Valero gas station. Every now and then, campaign workers and volunteers, armed with megaphones and placards, show up at the gas station to protest Texas' sudden interest in California's unemployment rate and environmental laws.

Spencer Olson, a field organizer at the El Camino Real office, said the Valero station on El Camino Real, in Palo Alto's Ventura neighborhood, is one of several that the campaign targets for its protests. Inside his office stands a 5-foot model of an oil rig with a sign, "Stop Texas Oil. No on 23."

Proposition 23, which gets the bulk of its financial support from oil companies Valero and Tesoro, is striking a particular chord in Palo Alto, where elected leaders routinely flaunt the city's eco-friendly initiatives and where "green" continues to be the leading buzzword for venture capitalists and high-tech innovators.

Olson said his campaign has about 3,000 volunteers statewide, roughly 400 of whom are from Palo Alto. This includes members of the local nonprofit Acterra who have been manning phones and hosting parties to raise awareness of and opposition to Proposition 23, he said.

Proposition 23 would suspend the California Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32), which regulates California's greenhouse-gas emissions and requires the state to reduce these emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Supporters of Proposition 23 claim the bill would be a job killer and call their campaign the "California Jobs Initiative." The proposition would suspend the act until the state's unemployment rate — which currently hovers around 12 percent — is at or below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters.

In recent months, Palo Alto has become ground zero for Proposition 23 opposition. The City Council passed a resolution last month opposing it, while local venture capitalists and executives have poured millions into the "No on 23" campaign chest.

Olson said he hasn't encountered many voters in Palo Alto who favor Proposition 23. So although the campaign's mission initially focused on swaying voters, its main goal now is to make sure they vote on Nov. 2. The campaign also draws on local volunteers to call residents in other cities, where the opinions about the proposition are more varied.

"Our mission is to hit the base and make sure they turn out," Olson said.

Olson's campaign, which is funded by the San Francisco-based communication company CREDO Mobile, is one of about a dozen statewide efforts fighting Proposition 23. Others are spearheaded by environmental groups (Sierra Club), technologists (Green Technology Leadership Group) or both (Californians for Clean Air and Clean Energy Jobs).

The efforts appear to be paying off. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that support for Proposition 23 has dipped in the past month, with 48 percent of the voters saying they will vote no on the proposition and 37 percent saying they'd vote yes. A month ago, the two sides were in a dead heat.

Among Democrats, opposition to Proposition 23 has climbed from 48 in September to 53 percent in October, the poll shows. In Palo Alto, the gap between opponents and supporters appears to be much wider. The council's resolution against the proposition passed unanimously and with no debate. Dozens of local residents have mailed in checks to combat Proposition 23, while not a single Palo Alto donor is listed in the "Yes on 23" campaign finance reports.

Though opponents make much of the fact that Proposition 23 gets major funding from Texas billionaires in the oil industry, the opposition actually has a sizeable edge in money raised. Campaign records show that the groups had collectively raised more than $31.5 million so far this year to fight Proposition 23 and had more than $10 million on hand for the final push. The "Yes on 23" campaign raised about $9 million and had about $2 million in reserve as of mid October.

Much of the opposition's funding came from Palo Alto and its Silicon Valley neighbors. John Doerr, whose venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is a leading investor in green start-ups, contributed $1 million to fight Proposition 23. His wife, Ann Doerr, gave another $1 million. Campaign records show that Google co-founder Sergey Brin gave $200,000 to the campaign, while Tesla Motors provided $25,000. Wendy Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation and board member of the Natural Resource Defense Council, contributed $500,000, while Laurene Powell Jobs, president of College Track and wife of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, contributed $250,000.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, Proposition 23 would suspend the state's comprehensive greenhouse-gas-reduction program, which includes cleaner fuel requirements, conversion to renewable energy, and mandatory emissions reporting and fee requirements for power plants and oil refineries. The office concluded that if Proposition 23 were enacted it would discourage investment and job creation in the state's clean-energy sectors, but economic activity would likely be "modestly higher."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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