California Ponders Scary Proposition

California Ponders Scary Proposition

Most of the controversy over California Proposition 23, set for this November’s ballot, has centered on its supporters–it is being largely fueled by oil giants Valero Energy, Occidental Petroleum, and Tesoro, all based outside California. Yet it is the initiative’s potential consequences that have many in the architecture community worried.

At the heart of the debate is California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, or Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), a comprehensive program designed to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. AB 32 calls for the implementation of 69 measures, among them green building mandates and incentives, sustainable community strategies, high-speed rail, and energy- and water-efficiency initiatives.

While supporters of Prop. 23 insist it only aims to suspend the implementation of AB 32 until the state’s unemployment rate is at or below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters, detractors are quick to point out that because that has only occurred three times in the past 30 years, it would essentially kill the landmark legislation. According to Donald Simon, an attorney with Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean, if passed, Prop. 23 would trump AB 32. “By suspending [AB 32], the state can do no further implementation–the law would be put on ice,” he said.

Prop. 23 also threatens initiatives that have been implemented through the sweeping climate change law, even if they were adopted independently. These include the CALGreen building code; Senate Bill 375, which aims to control greenhouse gas emissions by curbing sprawl; initiatives relating to greening state buildings and public schools; and high-speed rail, which could trigger significant infrastructure and transit-oriented development.

“Anything tied to the implementation of AB 32 and its climate goals is at risk,” Simon said. He added that the green building code, for example, might survive because it has other legal authority outside of AB 32, but it–and anything else included in AB 32–could ultimately be tied up in litigation lasting as long as 10 years.

Existing building retrofits, too, would be stymied. “A key opportunity in building right now is the retrofitting of existing buildings to make them more efficient, which is driven by government policies around climate change. If you get rid of incentives, you kill a huge amount of work,” Simon said.

The issue gained added attention when Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina announced her support for the “imperfect” proposal on September 3. This led to a rebuke from incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer, who claimed her opponent was putting industry ahead of the environment.

William Worthen, vice president at green building consultancy Simon & Associates, said architects would not be the only ones to suffer if Prop. 23 passes. The AIA California Council, on whose board Worthen sits, voted overwhelmingly to oppose the initiative. “Prop. 23 risks stalling or removing any incentives for green technology and the next round of innovation and industry in our state,” said Worthen. “If it passes, it unravels what makes California a leader.”

Simon said the effects of Prop. 23 would extend well beyond the state’s borders because, historically, much of the country’s environmental regulation since the 1970s has come out of California, with other states and the federal government following its lead.

“Basically, if California’s climate laws are killed, there is zero percent chance we’ll get a national climate law,” he said.