- The Washington Times
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The tons of greenhouse gases emitted each year by California wildfires are thwarting the state’s aggressive climate-change agenda, and as far as Assemblyman James Gallagher is concerned, that’s a problem.

He and other California Republican legislators are seeking to suspend the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard, which calls for 100% green energy by 2045 — a suspension that could free up billions for PG&E and other utilities to invest in fire prevention measures, including burying aging power lines and thinning overgrown forests.

“In 2017 alone, PG&E spent $2.4 billion of your ratepayer dollars on buying expensive renewable power,” Mr. Gallagher said. “They only spent $1.5 billion on updating their infrastructure. That’s completely backward and needs to change.”

Ordinarily, such a proposal would be dead on arrival in Sacramento, but these are no ordinary times. Frustration is boiling over as PG&E customers in Northern California face an estimated 10 years of rolling power outages aimed at preventing catastrophic wildfires — an approach that isn’t necessarily working.

Another wildfire, the Easy Fire, erupted early Wednesday in the hills near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, burning about 1,300 acres, forcing evacuations and adding to the workload of firefighters already grappling with a half-dozen blazes.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has lashed out at PG&E for “decades of mismanagement,” “corporate greed,” and “dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change,” and certainly nobody is defending the investor-owned utility, now in bankruptcy, for failing to do more to update its infrastructure.

At the same time, blame for the crisis is increasingly shifting to years of Democratic-driven policies that prioritized climate change and discouraged tree-thinning in the name of protecting the environment, producing dangerously dense forests ready to ignite at the first spark.

In an Oct. 25 editorial, the Wall Street Journal said, “California’s return to the dark ages is a direct result of the Democratic political monopoly in Sacramento,” while the New York Post opined Oct. 29 that “Californians Created Their Current Wildfire Apocalypse.”

Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, said the problem is three-fold: the Democratic legislature’s decision to “squander money on green-energy schemes”; the state’s strict liability standard for investor-owned utilities and the hands-off approach to forest management.

“The environmental laws of the ‘70s made active management of public lands all but impossible, and so we’re reverting to the old normal,” Mr. McClintock said. “Forests grow and grow until they choke themselves to death and they’re consumed by catastrophic wildfire. That’s how nature manages forests.”

‘Religious fervor’

Driving the effort to put the renewable-energy mandate on hold are Mr. Gallagher and state Sen. Jim Nielsen, both of whom represent the town of Paradise, which was destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.

“In the case of the Camp Fire, an almost a century-old transmission line sparked, and that spark fell onto a tinderbox of fuel,” Mr. Gallagher said. “In the case of the Kincade Fire that’s burning right now in Sonoma, that reportedly could have come from a collapsed PG&E tower.”

PG&E is already ahead of the state’s renewables targets. About 39% of the Northern California utility’s power comes from renewable energy, ahead of the goal of 33% by 2020. If you count non-carbon sources like nuclear and large hydropower — which the state doesn’t — that figure is closer to 85%.

“To me, this is just a no-brainer, and the only people who would be opposed to it are radical environmental groups,” said Mr. Gallagher. “It’s almost like a religious fervor they have, that we have to keep RPS no matter what, even though it’s already being met.”

Democrats were quick to decry the plan. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins argued that “backsliding” on renewable energy “won’t solve the problem and will actually make things worse” by contributing to global warming.

“Replacing clean energy sources with more energy generated from fossil fuels exacerbates the climate change that is causing the extreme weather and wildfires we are facing, and it would mean higher bills for ratepayers by reducing power available from less expensive wind and solar sources,” said Ms. Atkins in a statement.

Environmentalists argue that many of California’s wildfires began not in forests, but in grasslands dried out by years of drought — which climate-change activists attribute to the rise of human-emitted carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“The worst haven’t started in what most people would think of as forests, but rather have started in grassy or shrubby areas, then been driven through forests and/or into communities,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.

Former state Sen. Kevin de Leon, who sponsored Senate Bill 100, the renewables standard, said that changing the law would be like “giving snake oil to a sick patient in a hospital.”

“It does nothing to help cure the problem and would set us back decades in our efforts to reduce the devastating impacts of extreme weather patterns like the ones we are facing right now,” he told the Sacramento Bee.

California Democrats often boast that their state leads the nation in combating climate change, but Mr. Gallagher argued that the state’s greenhouse-gas reductions have been more than offset by smoke from the wildfires.

“We saw 45 million metric tons of carbon emitted by these wildfires last year,” he said. “That’s nine times more than California reduced carbon emissions by in the previous two years.”

California made efforts in recent years to address the overgrown forests. Starting with the 2017-18 budget, the state began investing $195 million per year from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund into forest management.

That’s not enough, said Mr. Gallagher, arguing that the best money California could spend on fighting climate change would be to invest in forest health.

“If you have a forest that is overgrown and unhealthy, it emits carbon,” Mr. Gallagher said. “If you have a healthy forest that’s managed and has space between trees, that’s a carbon sink. All the experts have said, this is actually more bang for your buck. We could put more money into that and, more importantly, take care of this huge tinderbox that is a primary cause of these catastrophic fires.”

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.