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Gas Wars 

I did it without thinking: On the day we left San Antonio for California in June 2007, I stopped at the local Valero Corner Store on McCullough Avenue, filled the tank and squeegeed the windows, then rolled to I-10 for the 1,321-mile jaunt to Claremont, a quaint college town 40 miles east of Los Angeles. We patronized Valero because this station was close to our Olmos Park home and as a way to contribute to the local coffers — why enrich Irvine (Exxon), Houston (Shell), or San Ramon, CA (Texaco), when we could make regular (if small) contributions to our hometown economy? That strategy did not change while living in southern California, even as our temporary residence became permanent: We can tell you where every Valero station is located along I-5 between LA and the Bay Area, a route we regularly travel to visit my wife’s family. For us, pumping gas was a civic gesture.

So it remains, but with this twist: We now avoid Valero stations like the plague. The shift in our discretionary spending is a consequence of the Fortune 500 company’s decision to spend gobs of cash to “suspend” AB 32, California’s innovative climate-change legislation. So far, it has donated $500,000 to force the issue on the November ballot; another San Antonio oil giant, Tesoro, also has contributed a chunk of change. Their massive war chests dwarf the impact of my tiny boycott, but why should I underwrite Big Oil’s attack on a progressive piece of legislation designed to roll back greenhouse-gas emissions?

In September 2006, the California legislature passed and Governor Schwarzenegger signed AB 32 into law, making CA the first state to enact rigorous emissions controls that significantly would reduce its carbon footprint. Indeed, it was then the most comprehensive emissions-reduction program in the world.

Its goals are appropriately ambitious: By 2020, California will reduce its carbon emissions by 30 percent; by 2050, it will have reduced emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels. “When I campaigned for governor three years ago,” the governor declared as he signed the bill, “I said I wanted to make California number one in the fight against global warming. This is something we owe our children and our grandchildren.”

Mind you, this sensitive language comes from a political figure who at times can make even Rick Perry seem sane. But on this key issue, the mucho-muscled Schwarzenegger has proved adept, nimble, and sincere: his concern for the rising generations’ health and safety is tied to his instinctive understanding that “green energy” and the jobs it is creating will drive the state’s 21st-century economy.

Surely that is why Valero and Tesoro are in full-assault mode, alleging that AB 32 is catastrophic for business--by which they mean their bidness, framed around a creaking 20th-century oil-and-gas economic model. Valero CEO Bill Kleese made this clear in an email exchange with Adam Quinn, campaign manager for CREDO Action, a group that has launched a boycott of Valero. As a stunt, Quinn shot a note to Kleese urging him to lay off AB32, never expecting a reply. Within seconds, the iPhone-packing exec typed: “We are not willing to ruin our economy, our business, your life style and our country over AB-32.”

Such tough talk reveals its own underlying anxiety: AB 32 is already ushering in a new economy and new workforce, making it harder for an inflexible Valero to compete. Schwarzenegger warned this might happen at the legislation’s 2006 signing ceremony, declaring: “I say unquestionably it is good for businesses. Not only large, well-established businesses, but small businesses that will harness their entrepreneurial spirit to help us achieve our climate goals.” Companies unwilling to tie their enterprising ambitions to AB 32’s aggressive reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions will miss out on a highly profitable venture.

Making a killing on new energy initiatives — which ought to be Valero’s stock and trade — is nothing new in California. U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data reveals that between 1972 and 2006, California's market incentives and economic realities produced savings of upwards of $56 billion by spurring household decisions to adopt energy-efficiency measures. Consumers redirected those dollars toward other goods and services, generating an estimated 1.5 million jobs with a whopping payroll of $45 billion, demonstrating the economic boost that smart energy policy can have.

Of course some jobs were lost as a result of these greater efficiencies and shifts in spending patterns. No surprise, these came principally in the energy sector (Valero: Scream here). The crucial point, though, is that for every job lost, more than 50 new ones were created, further diversifying the state’s economy and its employment opportunities. California became much better off when it challenged itself to become more efficient.

AB 32 is proving this anew. According to UC-Berkeley’s Center for Energy, Resources and Economic Sustainability, the “ripple effect” that technological innovations, energy efficiencies, and redirected spending will have on the California economy over the next 40 years will boost the Gross State Product by $76 billion, push up household incomes by $48 billion, and create 400,000 additional jobs. Out of this new work will emerge a more efficient, robust, and sustainable economy. Green is the new gold.

The rush is on: California, post-AB 32, has become the dominant state in clean-tech investment, snagging $3.3 billion in venture capital in 2008 alone, leaving Texas in the dust. That ought to be an in-your-face message that even San Antonio’s deep-pocketed oil companies cannot ignore. Instead of waging a losing war against the future they should be investing in its fastest-growing sectors. Pouring money into alternative sources of energy and clean technologies will boost the corporate bottom line, pleasing shareholders no end, investments that would have as well a profound impact on San Antonio’s economic fortunes.

The community’s success still means a lot to me, so the moment Valero announces this new forward-looking strategy I promise to head to my local Corner Store, ready to gas up and move on.


Char Miller retired from Trinity University in 2009 and is Director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College; he’s author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas and editor of River Basins of the American West. 

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