Never before has a race for governor of California turned on the environment as much as the one unfolding right now. Everywhere they go around California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the two Democrats vying to challenge him next fall each claim to be greenest.
Listen to state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who proposes a plan to cut gasoline consumption in the state by 25 percent over the next 10 years, principally by forcing automakers to sell cars that can also run on "biofuels" derived from agricultural waste, things like fruit pits, corn husks and cobs and more.
Angelides also says he would insist on "smart growth," forcing local governments to put new developments in areas that are already well settled, especially along mass transit corridors.
"The governor says he wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but then he promotes his 'strategic growth initiative,' which does nothing to ensure cutting anything," Angelides said.
In fact, the Schwarzenegger "strategic growth" plan would widen freeways, build new toll roads and truck lanes, retrofit bridges to make them safer and modernize ports. Everything there figures to increase automobile miles driven. Meanwhile, improved mass transit in big cities remains only a minor part of the governor's plan. And he's equivocated of late on his support of tough standards for greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, Angelides' chief primary election opponent, state Controller Steve Westly, touts his efforts as a member of the state Lands Commission to keep ocean water clean, prevent offshore oil drilling and expand wetlands protection.
He backs Schwarzenegger's moves to promote solar energy, while going farther than the governor on greenhouse gases by promising to put California in "full compliance" with the Kyoto global warming treaty, even though the United States never ratified it.
While both Westly and Angelides promise their plans would cost consumers next to nothing, Schwarzenegger backed off some proposals advanced by an advisory committee he appointed and tagged his "Climate Action Team" when critics suggested they would amount to new taxes.
The group, set up to find ways of to cut greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming, recommended raising gasoline prices and requiring industries to report their own gaseous emissions, which would be a national first.
Republican activists were among those instantly attacking the idea of raising gas pump prices. On several Web sites, they labeled this a new gas tax going by a different name. Some even linked it to Schwarzenegger's solar power initiative, which never got past the Legislature because it levies a new fee on all electricity and natural gas users. Schwarzenegger got his way on the solar plan only when his appointees on the state Public Utilities Commission imposed it on utility customers, who will have no choice but to pay.
Even before any news organization could report the details of the gasoline price increase recommended by Schwarzenegger's advisory team, his press secretary issued a statement shooting it down. "I want to clarify that Gov. Schwarzenegger has not proposed nor does he support an increase to the gas tax. … The governor is prepared to … review their recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
In short, Schwarzenegger was saying he still wants to cut global warming, but not if that takes any sacrifice by the bulk of Californians.
Similarly, Angelides insists his far more specific proposals would not impose either new taxes or new burdens on anyone.
So both Schwarzenegger and Angelides each loudly insists he's the better environmentalist, while Westly quietly tells voters he can outdo them both.
If all this remains a major issue into the fall, it will be nothing but good news for California, which badly needs cleaner air, less urban sprawl and more efficient cars.
Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at email@example.com.