Keep Lobbyists Close and Energy Executives Closer

CA officials rub elbows abroad with the polluters they regulate

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The Sacramento Bee ran an eye-opening investigative report over the weekend. Bee journalists found that California officials tasked with regulating greenhouse gas polluters and crafting the state’s policy responses to global warming have been taking all-expenses-paid trips with energy industry lobbyists and company executives.

Say what?!?

This revelation is utterly outrageous and seemingly illegal on its face. But industry, as it often manages to do, identified a loophole in the law and pulled through it.

The Bee pieced together details from a mountain of state government paperwork that accumulates out of public view, some of it obtained via the California Public Records Act, including memos, itineraries, receipts, office calendars and financial disclosure forms.

Those travel documents indicate that a who’s who of climate change oversight in state government—from Linda Adams, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, to Susan Kennedy, chief of staff for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—mingled abroad with top executives from Chevron, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric, Shell Oil, British Petroleum and others.

Industry support for those excursions did not come directly to state officials, the documents show, which would violate a law limiting gifts to $420 a year. Instead, it is routed through nonprofit groups, which can spend whatever they want on state travel without disclosing precisely who is paying for it.

In my opinion, the article illustrates two critically important (and very timely) points. One, the undue influence of industry over local, state, and federal government is like a straightjacket. Three-quarters of Americans think greenhouse gas emissions from cars, power plants, and factories should be regulated, but we don’t have a shot at getting anything close to an adequate response from our elected leaders if dirty energy executives and lobbyists maintain their practically unrestricted access to our government.

Two, the public needs good journalism now more than ever. Investigative reports like the one run by the Sac Bee provide a tremendous public service by shining light on the shadowy nexus between government and private industry. With all of the critical issues we are facing as a nation and a globe, we need a whole lot more light right now, not less.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.