While the nation’s eyes are turned towards the oil tipped waves and tar balls washing up on the shores of the Gulf Coast, an altogether different energy disaster looms in California—one that might be even more damaging for the environment and our economy in the long run.

For decades now California has led the country in environmental protection, passing legislation that’s often set the benchmark for national policy. But this, like all tides, can flow in two directions. A pair of ballot measures—Props 16 & The California Jobs Initiative—could set California back immeasurably and by extension the entire country, at a time when we can least afford it.

Prop 16

Proposition 16 is a devious attempt by northern California public utility Pacific Gas & Electric to block local communities determining from where their electricity comes. I’ve got to give them credit: PG&E has put together a shrewd strategy that seems likely to succeed. They’ve titled the measure "The Taxpayers Right to Vote Act" and placed it on an off-season ballot that’s certain to get very low turnout. Their ads, like the one below, are brilliant (if you can ignore the profound cynicism behnd them)—claiming that it’s all about making sure that taxpayers have a right to vote and determine how their money is spent.

Never mind the fact that the ballot measure is intended to do the exact opposite of what it claims or that there’s something fundamentally ironic about asking a simple majority in a low-turnout election to force local communities to get approval of 2/3rds of voters in order to take their energy future into their own hands. If this election turns out anything like the June 2006 primary (the last non-Presidential election), a mere 10% of eligible voters will determine the energy future of the entire state.

For these reasons and many others, a long list of governments, not-for-profits, civic organizations, and newspapers have come out in opposition to Prop 16. Clearly the stakes are high for PG&E and so the utility is is spending $44 million on the campaign, while the opposition has only managed to raise less than one-tenth of one percent that amount—forcing them to get creative with the use of social media.

The California Jobs Initiative

Prop 16 is bad news. The California Jobs Initiative stands to be worse. While Prop 16 would stifle the rapid deployment of decentralized renewable energy, the California Jobs Initiative aims to kill energy reform altogether. Backed by out-of-state oil companies and anti-tax groups, the November 2010 ballot measure proposes to suspend AB32 (the landmark California climate legislation) until the state’s official unemployment levels drop to below 5.5% for four straight quarters, down from their current levels of 12.6%.

Is the California Jobs Initiative just another cynical ploy to use fears and anger over the economy to block reform? Yep. Is it likely to work? You betcha. Would its passage be devastating to our energy and environmental well-being? Uh huh.

If this ballot measure passes, suspension of AB32 will likely last somewhere between five years and forever, depending on your level of optimism about economic recovery. Everyone knows that we don’t have forever to get serious about the climate or energy crisis. But do we even have five years? Climate science is now telling us that we didn’t have five years… well, five years ago. And even the US military is warning that we could experience massive shortages of oil by 2015.

The California Jobs Initiative is almost as filled with irony as Prop 16. After all, if its proponents were really serious about reducing unemployment, they might just consider that the clean tech sector stands to be one of California’s largest sources for job growth.

The clean tech industry, which has stayed largely silent about Prop 16, is gearing up for a real fight over the California Jobs Initiative. But while AB 32 proponents will likely garner enough political and financial backing to make this fight competitive, the truth is—with both of these propositions… with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico… with the debate over national climate legislation—we’re basically having an argument with the wrong people about the wrong things.

Wasted Energy

Should we be #%#%# mad at BP for the Gulf Oil spill? Should we hold them and/or Halliburton and/or Transocean accountable for the lives lost, and the environmental and economic damage they caused? Should we be angered by BP’s delay tactics in sharing video footage of the oil leak or by their attempts to pay off people in order to avoid later lawsuits? Absolutely. And should we disgusted by PG&E’s power grab or the fact that out-of-state oil interests are trying to block California from enacting legislation it passed three years ago? Damn straight!

But why are we wasting a second of our time or energy expecting anything different? The sooner we understand that debating the fossil fuel industry or buying their false, half-measure solutions like "clean coal" is a waste of time, the sooner we can turn our attention to the real work at hand—getting ourselves off fossil fuels. These are the world’s largest, wealthiest corporations. Their mandate is to get the maximum return on shareholder investment. Period. I know what you’re thinking… corporate executives and their shareholders depend on this climate and our oceans just as much as the rest of us. True. But how often do you see a drug dealer stop selling to an addict because he knows the drugs are going to kill him?

Does this mean we shouldn’t hold BP’s feet to the fire or fight insidious efforts like Prop 16 and the California Jobs Initiative? Of course not. But we simply don’t have the time or resources to engage in a protracted legislative and litigious war with vested interests who not only have far more money and access than we do, but whose very intent is to delay and deny for as long as possible. The only way we can win this battle is by taking away the true source of their power. Our addiction.