Kicking the oil habit and Washington
For most of the world exposed to American pop culture, California is beaches, sun-tanned bodies, Silicon Valley, silicon implants, and cars… lots of it. Its appetite for consumption is matched only by its productivity.
Recent news that the California state legislature has passed a law setting targets in emission control by as much as twenty five percent reduction within fourteen years, reinforces its leadership in environmental policy making. The state that led the high tech revolution is now poised to be the capital in clean energy technology.
Paul Roberts’ The End of Oil, is probably the most definitive and the most readable book on energy on bookstore shelves today. Roberts mentions the historical antecedents that can explain why it should not come as a surprise that California has taken this bold step. The smog alerts in Los Angeles may now just be a faint memory for most Americans, but its struggle for clean air in a state that was “the birthplace of the American car culture” is worth reviewing. In the nineties, the state legislature mandated that by year 2003 ten percent of all new cars sold in the state should be zero emission vehicles (ZEV). Roberts notes that the largest and most lucrative auto market in the world practically forced the reluctant automotive industry to start developing electric cars. As recent as 2000, California went through a power crisis which experts say were a product of manipulation by power companies and energy traders.
Despite a loss of interest in energy conservation elsewhere after the price of gasoline declined following the oil crisis of the seventies, California continues to be a leader in energy conservation. In fact, the recovery from the rolling blackouts of 2000 is attributed to the conscious effort of the business sector and the consumers to cut power usage. To be fair, it is necessary to point out that California is the twelfth largest source of global warming pollution. But by setting specific targets in emission levels, California creates the enabling environment for the private sector to develop alternative sources of energy. This is crucial in building what Roberts calls the “bridge to the next fuel economy.”
California has acted independently of Washington on this one. While George Bush continues to speak from both sides of his mouth on the environment, (he now acknowledges the reality of global warming but insists there is still a debate whether it is man-made or naturally caused) California is showing the power of the local. If it can pursue local initiatives to curb energy consumption by life-style changes, it may yet provide Bush and Cheney, the two most powerful oilmen in the United States, the alternative to invading oil-rich countries using a fig leaf of a cover called “the war on terror.”