The Big Green Monster

California's latest environmental initiative promises to raise taxes, revitalize Tom Hayden's political career, and wreck the state's economy. So why isn't anyone opposing it?


In a nationwide poll taken last December by the Los Angeles Times, 62 percent of the respondents answered yes to the question, "Are you in favor of protecting the environment even if that means some people will lose their jobs and the government will have to spend a great deal of money?" As the Times poll suggests, people all across the nation seem increasingly willing to support any measure that is sold as "pro-environment," with no regard to its costs or its benefits.

California's proposed "Environmental Protection Act of 1990" demonstrates the sort of policies this new attitude may engender. Known popularly as "Big Green," this ballot initiative would impose huge costs on consumers and taxpayers and create a new and very powerful state bureaucracy. It is not clear that Big Green will do much for the environment. Still, the measure has no serious opposition. Its supporters have sold Big Green as an important piece of environmental legislation, and no one wants to oppose Mother Nature.

Big Green is backed by all the major environmental groups—the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the California League of Conservation Voters, and the National Toxics Campaign—as well as by leading Democratic politicians, notably Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate John Van de Kamp, Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D–Santa Monica), and Assemblyman Lloyd Connelly (D–Sacramento).

Taking up 39 single-spaced pages, Big Green is a bold wish list for environmentalists. It would ban pesticides with even tiny traces of "cancer-causing" ingredients and transfer the regulation of pesticides from the Department of Food and Agriculture to the Department of Health Services; ban offshore oil drilling and impose a 25-cents-a-barrel fee on oil shipped through California; use that tax to establish a $500-million oil-spill cleanup fund; require a 20-percent net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2000, 40 percent by the year 2010; mandate that builders and developers plant one tree for every 500 square feet of new construction (not just any trees, but "appropriate" trees—which will be defined by regulations—that maximize air quality benefits); and provide a $300-million bond issue for the purchase of redwood forests, with the proviso that privately owned forests shall be taken through eminent domain if the owner is unwilling to sell.

There are lots of other costly little items buried in the fine print, such as the requirement that all state agencies spend at least half of their paper-purchasing budget on recycled paper, regardless of whether recycled paper is more costly than regular paper. More important, the initiative's regulations would be exempt from review by the state's Office of Administrative Law, which reviews all laws and regulations for interagency conflict, cost-effectiveness, and other factors. And changing any of the initiative's terms would require a two-thirds vote of the legislature.

But the regulations are only part of the story. Big Green would create a new statewide, elected Office of Environmental Advocate. The advocate would have broad authority to "conduct oversight investigations, studies and any other analyses" to ensure compliance with environmental regulations. Not trusting the attorney general to enforce the regulations, the initiative empowers the advocate to bring legal enforcement actions. Not trusting the legislature to fund the new office, Big Green orders a $40-million annual budget to be used to make grants for environmental research—a ready source of porkbarrel money for environmentalists. The initiative also gives the advocate the responsibility to "recommend to private parties…policies and actions to ensure environmental protection and public health." On environmental policy, the advocate would probably be the most powerful officeholder in the state.

Several of California's most prominent politicians have lined up behind Big Green. Hayden, one of the measure's architects, has had his eye on a statewide office at least since his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1982. He had talked about running for state insurance commissioner this year, but he suffered a falling-out with the Voter Revolt organization, which sponsored the 1988 initiative that made that office elective. Voter Revolt instead backed Conway Collis, chairman of the state Board of Equalization. Hayden may now view the post of environmental advocate as the way to move up.

But he would probably have to contend with the other leading environmental advocate in the legislature, Lloyd Connelly. Acknowledged as a rising star among state legislators, Connelly often carries water for environmentalists and lacks Hayden's New Left baggage. He is a close ally of the antipesticide NRDC, which has 20,000 members in California, a fifth of its national membership. "They have a view I find myself in agreement with most of the time," Connelly says of the increasingly influential group.

Connelly is best known as the prime sponsor of NRDC-drafted Proposition 65. Approved by California voters in 1986, Prop 65 requires warning labels on any product containing cancer-causing ingredients in even the most minute amounts. Virtually every product on the market is subject to the Prop 65 warning requirement, and the signs are now prominently displayed in bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and banks. Since certain building materials contain carcinogens, lawsuit-conscious builders have even hung the signs in new houses.

But Big Green has received its biggest boost from John Van de Kamp, who, after eight lackluster years as attorney general, is looking for a big issue to propel his gubernatorial campaign. Van de Kamp is sponsoring two other initiatives, on crime and legislative ethics, that along with Big Green tap voters' hot buttons. Writing his promises into initiatives, Van de Kamp says, allows the voters to "vote for me, and vote for my platform."

Van de Kamp had hoped to establish early momentum through the initiatives, which receive lots of media attention months before a formal gubernatorial campaign begins making the front page. But if early polls are any indication, his strategy isn't working. Van de Kamp has been badly trailing both his Democratic opponent, former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein, and the Republican candidate, Sen. Pete Wilson.

Wilson, with no Republican opposition, has been biding his time, husbanding his campaign funds, and reacting warily to Van de Kamp's initiative blitz. Wilson has been trying to burnish his credentials as an environmentalist, having long ago declared his opposition to offshore oil drilling and more recently capitulated to a long-standing environmentalist demand to transfer oversight of pesticides from the Department of Food and Agriculture to a special agency. Wilson has equivocated about Big Green, saying he supports the idea of eliminating poisons from food but opposes the environmental advocate office. "In my judgment," Wilson says, "it is the responsibility of the governor to be the chief environmental advocate. I do not intend to delegate such a primary responsibility."

Feinstein also claims environmental credentials, but she once sniped at Big Green. "It's well intended; we'll see if it's well drafted," she said in October 1989. She endorsed the initiative on Earth Day.

While Big Green may not be an automatic ticket to the governor's mansion, polls show it has strong voter support. The initiative comes at an opportune moment for environmentalists, as public concern about the environment has reached hysteric levels in California. In recent months Southern California has been in a tizzy about aerial spraying of malathion over a wide area of suburban Los Angeles where the Mediterranean fruit fly continues to be found. And in February a British Petroleum tanker spilled several hundred thousand gallons of oil just off Newport Beach, touching off a full-scale media and political feeding frenzy.

Because public sentiment about the environment is so strong, there is little direct opposition to Big Green. Even the businesses that would be harmed by the initiative have been reluctant to speak out against it. Running a campaign against Big Green would be difficult "because it would seem like you're running against the environment," says Brian Lungren, a Republican political consultant in Sacramento.

Instead, several industries have written their own counter-initiatives, hoping that they will win the approval of voters. Agricultural interests, for example, are running a counter-initiative that would not ban pesticides. Instead it would double the number of residue tests and fund new research into "safe" pesticides. If the counter-initiative gets more votes, it will negate the pesticide sections of Big Green. It will, however, leave intact the other provisions, such as the Office of Environmental Advocate.

Similarly, the timber industry has an initiative to counter the logging provisions of Big Green. The timber counter-initiative would also raise $300 million in bond money for forests, but it would ban only 50 percent of clear-cutting. "The '90s are the decade of the environment," says Kevin Eckerly of the Timber Association of California. "We'd like to have a hand in designing the environmental reforms."

Counter-initiatives have emerged as the new trend over the last two election cycles in California, the political equivalent of "if you can't lick 'em, join 'em." When opponents figure it will be difficult to defeat a broad-based initiative, they offer a competing initiative to carve out a better deal for their own particular interest. The most striking success to date was a 1988 counter-initiative on campaign finance reform, which negated a public financing initiative backed by Common Cause. More often, however, counter-initiatives fail.

In 1988 the insurance industry spent $100 million on its own no-fault auto insurance initiative, only to lose to an initiative backed by Voter Revolt and Ralph Nader. The initiative, Proposition 103, mandated rate rollbacks of 20 percent and made California's auto insurance market one of the most heavily regulated in the United States.

The problem with a counter-initiative is that it dilutes the overall opposition to the main initiative. Agricultural interests, for instance, have decided to concentrate their entire effort and all of their money on their own initiative and let someone else handle general opposition to Big Green. Similarly, the timber industry will focus its efforts on its counter-initiative. And the millions of consumers and taxpayers who will be hurt by Big Green have no coalition to gather behind.

Environmentalists are overjoyed by this state of affairs, believing that they have a rhetorical advantage over industry-backed measures. Who do you trust? they say. The industry being regulated, or consumer groups?

What would Big Green really mean in terms of changes and costs to the economy? There has been little discussion about some of the initiative's most significant features, especially the greenhouse-gas reduction plan. Supporters of Big Green offer no estimate of the cost of achieving the 20/40 reduction in carbon dioxide (20 percent by 2000, 40 percent by 2010), but it is clear that meeting these goals will require draconian policies.

Carbon dioxide is principally the byproduct of energy use. Changing carbon dioxide emissions therefore requires changing the amount of energy used and the way energy is used. But sources and uses of energy are not all created equal. Coal is the dirtiest source of energy, followed by petroleum products, natural gas, and nuclear power. The mix of energy sources within a state will be the largest determinant of its carbon dioxide emissions—and of the prospects for easily reducing those emissions.

In 1986, the last year for which national figures are available, California generated 85.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Though California ranked second (behind Texas) in the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions, a different picture emerges if carbon dioxide emissions are calculated according to economic output. On the basis of carbon dioxide output per $1 million of gross state product, California ranks as the fifth cleanest state. In 1986, California emitted 160 tons of carbon dioxide for every $1 million of gross state product. The comparative figure for West Virginia—which makes heavy use of coal—is 1,179 tons per $1 million of output.

In other words, California is relatively clean already, because it relies on clean energy sources. Nearly three-quarters of California's carbon dioxide emissions in 1986 came from burning gasoline and oil, most of the rest from natural gas. A mere 1 percent was produced by coal. To cut carbon dioxide emissions further, Californians have essentially two options: cut back sharply on petroleum use or rely more on nuclear power. Of course, the same groups that support Big Green also oppose nuclear power.

That means Californians will have to slash their consumption of oil and gasoline. And since stationary sources of air pollution—power plants, factories, etc.—are already heavily regulated in California, the burden of reducing consumption will fall most heavily on motorists. (Over half the carbon dioxide emissions in Southern California are from cars and trucks.) Just to achieve the initial 20-percent cut, the state would have to find some way to raise gasoline prices by 25 cents to 50 cents a gallon, estimates a study by the consulting firm Spectrum Economics. Knowing politicians, "some way" probably will be an increase in the gasoline tax.

Cutting emissions by 40 percent would be much tougher, since most optional driving would have already been eliminated. Spectrum Economics estimates that gasoline prices would have to increase by another 50 cents to $ 1.00 a gallon to achieve that goal. Twenty years from now, Californians could easily be paying $2.50 a gallon for gasoline—with most of that money going into the state treasury.

When it comes to pesticide policy, Big Green's prescriptions can best be described as overkill. The initiative would ban 15 commonly used pesticides and fumigants. Not only does it prohibit California farmers from using these chemicals, it bans the import of fruits and vegetables that might contain them, whether grown in Florida or Chile. If enforced, this ban would sharply limit supply and drive up the prices of fruits and vegetables available to California consumers. In fact, winter fruits—usually imported from South America—might become totally unavailable.

The courts might well deem the import ban a violation of the Constitution's Interstate Commerce Clause. But regardless of how courts rule, it isn't clear that Big Green's ban on pesticides is really necessary. The rhetoric of some environmentalists implies that cancer from pesticides and food additives has been rising sharply in recent decades. But it hasn't. The death rates for most types of cancer have held steady or declined over the past 25 years. The major exception: Lung cancer deaths have jumped to about 53 per 100,000 deaths from 22. It's a sure bet that smoking has more to do with that increase than pesticides.

Other research is even more damaging to environmentalist claims. It seems that naturally occurring carcinogens exist in fruits and vegetables in concentrations much higher than those of carcinogens added by pesticides or preservatives. This finding, which represents a growing scientific consensus, was the major topic of discussion at the last meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in February in New Orleans. "Ordinary food contains an abundance of carcinogenic initiators which in totality dwarf all synthetic sources," said toxicologist Robert Scheuplein of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety. "The notion that you can ban one or two [additives] and improve your health just doesn't make sense anymore."

Scheuplein and other experts have built on the research of Bruce Ames, chair of the biochemistry department at the University of California, Berkeley. Once an ardent alarmist about man-made additives and pesticides, he developed the now widely used Ames Test, which allows quick screening of food for carcinogens. After testing naturally occurring compounds, Ames has changed his mind about the dangers of additives. "It is probable," he says, "that almost every plant product in the supermarket contains natural carcinogens." Ames estimates that our intake of natural carcinogens is 10,000 times higher than our intake of man-made carcinogens.

Why, then, don't we all get cancer from this nasty stuff? Because, says Ames, the human body has effective general defenses against these compounds, which protect us just as well from man-made compounds. Ames doesn't buy the environmentalist retort that evolution has equipped humans against natural substances but not man-made pesticides. First, he reminds us that to our bodies a chemical is a chemical—the source is immaterial. More important, we have been eating some kinds of fruits and vegetables in the West for only a few centuries—not long enough for evolution to have built up defenses which would filter out natural substances but not artificial compounds.

So on the relative scale of minuscule cancer risks, food itself is more "dangerous" than man-made pesticides. And banning pesticides, as Big Green would do, could actually increase the amount of natural carcinogens we ingest. Crops not treated with pesticides generate more alfatoxin and mycotoxin molds as a natural antipest and antifungus defense. These alfatoxins and mycotoxins are themselves known to cause cancer. Big Green might actually make food slightly less safe.

Still, it will be difficult to convince an increasingly skittish public that pesticides are safe. In fact, Big Green's campaign manager doesn't think the public will pay any attention to the defenders of pesticides. "In a political debate, science really doesn't matter much," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It's really how you feel about the issue." And voters seem to feel that chemicals are dangerous.

While some scientists worry that Big Green's pesticide provisions could make food less safe, others worry that the initiative's water standards could actually make drinking water more dangerous. For example, under a strict interpretation of Big Green's standards, chlorine-based water treatment would be banned. Chlorine treatment of sewage has eliminated formerly common diseases such as typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, and dysentery, and there is no effective substitute for chlorine. But, as Spectrum Economics' Steven Moss observes, under Big Green any use of a chemical which might result in one additional cancer death for every million people is prohibited. A spokeswoman for Assemblyman Connelly denies that the initiative would ban chlorine treatment of sewage. But chlorine treatment of drinking water may be another matter. Connelly in the past has voiced concern about the carcinogens chlorine leaves in drinking water.

Further, Big Green could make less water available for the people of California. In two sections, the initiative requires the state to administer its water policy in a manner that ensures "full protection of fish, shellfish and their habitats." As Spectrum's Moss observes, this effectively gives wildlife first call on water resources ahead of both people and farms. In any water shortage, fish would have a greater right to drink than people.

Unfortunately, voters are unlikely to get any such clear picture of what the initiative could mean to their lives. Given the initiative's potential cost—measured not only in dollars but in intrusive regulation and foreclosed choices—that is a tragedy. Given the idealism behind the initiative process, it is a supreme irony. Initiatives were established in California as a Progressive Era device for the people to break special-interest control of the legislature. With the advent of the counter-initiative, they have become a way for special interests to compete to confuse the voters.

Longtime California residents may recall a 1972 initiative to ban nuclear power that was soundly defeated by a campaign featuring TV spots of families dining and children studying by candlelight. A similar frontal assault on Big Green doesn't seem likely.

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is director of the Claremont Institute's Golden State Project. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Claremont Institute or the Reason Foundation.