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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said that Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman initially supported Proposition 23 before changing her position. Whitman campaign spokesman Darrel Ng said the candidate was undecided initially, then decided to oppose the measure about a month ago.

Calif.'s Prop 23 battle pits Big Oil against environmental concerns


An advertisement in support of proposition 23 from the coalition of food, energy, transportation and forestry companies.


An advertisement advocating against the proposition sponsored by environmental groups and the No on 23 Committee of the NRDC Action Fund.

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By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 12:03 PM

Mix together a couple of big oil refiners, an arch-conservative oil tycoon, "green tech" venture capitalists, a former secretary of state and California's far-reaching climate legislation, and stir.

The result is one of the most volatile and expensive political battles of the year.

The issue is Proposition 23, a California referendum that would shelve the state's four-year-old climate legislation until unemployment there falls to 5.5 percent - more than half the current level - which economists agree could take many years. The delay would upend a myriad of solar, wind and low-emission automobile projects.

The referendum has also become a test case about the power of corporate money - mostly from two Texas-based firms - and a measure of how much climate change is sucking wind as a political cause. Fresh off their defeat on a climate bill in Congress, environmentalists and their allies are fighting to prevent their biggest policy success from being rolled back in the country's most "green"-friendly state.

The California legislation would slash greenhouse emissions by 30 percent, limit tailpipe emissions and set targets for utilities' renewable energy use.

A game of big money

One indicator of the emotional charge surrounding the debate was the language Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) used to attack Prop 23 supporters.

"Does anyone really believe that these companies, out of the goodness of their black oil hearts, are spending millions and millions of dollars to protect jobs?" Schwarzenegger said recently. "This is like Eva Braun writing a kosher cookbook. It's not about jobs at all, ladies and gentlemen. It's about their ability to pollute and thus protect their profits."

The proposition held a slight lead at one point, according to polls, but is now narrowly trailing.

The measure was the brain child of a state legislator, a Sacramento lobbyist who has represented tobacco companies and two oil refiners.

By early October, Valero Energy, the nation's biggest refiner, had poured $4 million into an ad campaign, public records show. Tesoro, the other refiner, has matched that, a company official said. The Koch brothers, who have supported the tea party movement and other conservative causes, added more than $1 million. Other donors brought the total to $16 million.

But Big Oil isn't the only big money in California.

Lined up against the refiners are a group of wealthy fund managers, clean technology investors, environmental groups and onetime Reagan secretary of state George Shultz, who believes that "climate issues are very real" and that Proposition 23 is "a very bad thing."


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