September 24, 2020
The sharpest criticism of California’s policies on electric vehicles and climate change isn’t coming from Republicans or groups funded by the oil and gas business. Instead, it’s coming from a Black Democrat, Assemblyman Jim Cooper, who represents a district that’s about a five-minute drive south of the capitol building in Sacramento.
Shortly after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles in the state by 2035, Cooper was on Twitter pointing out that the low- and middle-income drivers can’t afford electric vehicles like the ones Newsom stood in front of when he announced the order. Cooper said those EVs “cost more than $50K each. How will my constituents afford an EV? They can’t.” He continued, saying that Newsom’s move doesn’t “take into account the strain an all-electric vehicle fleet will have on our state electric grid.”
Cooper also used Twitter to criticize the California Air Resources Board, the powerful agency that sets many of the state’s climate policies. He asked “how will @AirResources develop regulations that will actually benefit the majority of Californians? Last year, @carb said the overall mean purchase of a CA household’s main vehicle was $14,000, which is over half of their yearly income.”
Cooper is a difficult man to ignore. A lifelong Democrat, he served as a captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department for 30 years and spent 15 years as Elk Grove’s founding mayor and councilmember.
Two weeks ago, I had Cooper on the Power Hungry Podcast to talk about a scathing August 3 open letter that he wrote. Cooper’s letter, which was posted on Twitter, was largely ignored by media outlets. The notable exception was an article published last month by Antonio Ray Harvey in the Los Angeles Sentinel. Cooper’s letter was directed at the state’s biggest environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, who, he said, promote policies that “systematically drive racial economic inequities and fuel environmental racism.”
He continued, saying the groups “consistently push legislation that is designed to protect or improve the environment but frequently when implemented negatively impact disadvantaged communities and low-wage inland households. These organizations from their leadership to their funders are nearly all white and attempt to trade on race issues by branding their efforts as ‘environmental justice’ – for which they do not apologize.”
The assemblyman fired some of his highest-octane criticism at California’s subsidies for electric vehicles – the very same vehicles that will be pushed under Newsom’s executive order. He said that the Sierra Club has been “complacent” in addressing environmental racism because “promoting policies that benefit coastal Tesla drivers has been more important.”
Cooper has been an assemblyman since 2014. In my interview with him, Cooper said that the people who buy EVs “can afford to buy them without a subsidy.” He continued, saying “Let’s be honest, you get a federal tax break, you get money back from California, and you get a sticker to drive in the carpool lane. That’s the only reason people do it,” he said. The people who buy Teslas and other EVs do so, he said, because they can get a “carpool lane sticker because traffic is so bad in California.”
Cooper, who drives a Chevy Suburban, also points out that the low- and middle-income Californians are subsidizing EV rebates that are being collected by the wealthy. Indeed, a quick analysis of data published the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project shows that California Senate District 13, in the Bay Area, has collected more than 23,000 rebates from the state worth some $55.3 million. That sum is more than what was rebated by seven other senate districts in the state combined. (Senate District 16 has collected a total of about $6.1 million; Senate District 14 collected $2.2 million; Senate District 12 collected $3.6 million; Senate District 5 collected $9.1 million; Senate District 4 collected $6.7 million; Senate District 40 collected $6.5 million; and Senate District 8 collected $13 million.)
Wealthy EV drivers have been getting subsidized for years. In 2016, two academics at the University of California-Berkeley, Severin Borenstein and Lucas W. Davis, published a paper which concluded that the majority of the money being collected under federal programs aimed at promoting energy efficiency and alternative transportation was going to wealthy Americans. They found “the most extreme disparity is in the program aimed at electric vehicles, where we find that the top income quintile has received about 90% of all credits.” They continued saying that taxpayers who had adjusted gross incomes “in excess of $75,000 have received…about 90% of all credit dollars aimed at electric cars.”
On September 19, Cooper published another piece attacking California’s energy policies and the state’s failure to prevent the recent blackouts. In a column published at CalMatters, Cooper blasted the California Public Utilities Commission, California Energy Commission, California Air Resources Board, and the governor’s office for not heeding warnings issued by the California Independent System Operator about the vulnerabilities of the state’s electric grid. California cannot continue “heaping the cost of ‘green’ policies on marginalized and impoverished communities,” Cooper wrote. “People of color already face the brunt of COVID-19. Meanwhile, liberal elite policymakers sit, charging their electric cars (for which they received taxpayer rebates), straining the grid while working families lose their electricity and air conditioning during a horrendous heatwave.”
During my podcast with Cooper, I asked him why he is speaking out so strongly about California’s energy and transportation policies. He replied that the state’s regulations “pissed me off to no end. It’s not fair. Things should be equitable. And they aren’t. Someone has got to speak up.”
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