California Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Elk Grove, has become a harsh critic of his state’s energy and climate policies. In this episode, Robert talks to Cooper (who was a guest on the podcast in September) about the regressive nature of California’s decarbonization efforts, the Sierra Club’s campaign to ban the use of  natural gas, and what he calls the “deliberate indifference” of climate activists to the needs of low- and middle-income Americans. 

Episode Transcript

Robert Bryce  0:05  

Hi, and welcome to the power hungry podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. We talk about energy, power, innovation and politics and my guest today the first return guest for the power hungry podcast is Assemblyman Jim Cooper from Elk Grove, California Assemblyman welcome, again to the power hungry podcast.

Jim Cooper  0:23  

Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Robert Bryce  0:25  

So today of the last time you were on the podcast, we talked about electric vehicle subsidies and the issue of social equity in California and had written a letter to the Sierra Club at that time objecting to their policies toward electric vehicles in the state calling them out in the other environmental groups out in the state for the issue of, of the inequity of the subsidies and that were largely going to wealthy senate districts in the state and, and and coming at the expense of the poor ones. So you’ve introduced yourself before, I’m just going to remind listeners that Assemblyman Jim Cooper is from Elk Grove, he has spent a long career in both law enforcement and in politics, at the local level in Elk Grove, and then you’ve been in the assembly for how many years is assembly?

Jim Cooper  1:15  

just finishing my sixth year,

Robert Bryce  1:17  

sixth year and just reelected and sworn in? As I recall.

Jim Cooper  1:20  

Yes. Yes, sir. Okay,

Robert Bryce  1:22  

so today, we’re talking about your November 30 letter that you wrote along with Assemblywoman Blanca, Rubio, to the to the California Public Utilities Commission, about the about the issue of natural gas bans. Can you quickly summarize that for me, please?

Jim Cooper  1:40  

Sure. Thanks, Robert. So it was written to the California Public Advocate’s office, and it was agreement, a common interest agreement between those folks in the Sierra Club. And it’s outrageous. I mean, calot, pa has no legal authority to sign the agreement, number one, and they very well could have broken the law. And they signed a secret agreement. And that’s just very troubling, that they would do something like that.

Robert Bryce  2:02  

So if I can just interject here. So the California Public Advocate’s office used to be called the Office of rate payer advocate, I believe, correct. Exactly. And and so this is the the agency in California that is charged with assuring the lowest utility rates to consumers. And right, and to correct me if I’m wrong here, I’ll just quickly recap that last year, the public Advocate’s office signed what’s called a common interest agreement with the Sierra Club, to effectively pursue Southern California Gas for what they perceived as wrongdoing. And so you have the consumer advocate allied with the Sierra Club, which has been very successful so far, in banning natural gas in the state of California, you have 40 communities already that have banned it. So Exactly. Let me let me jump ahead and then we’ll come back to the cow PA. Why are these natural gas bans bad and your letter your your make it clear that you’re not in favor? Why do you Why are you Opposed?

Jim Cooper  3:02  

So just think about it, folks. And Robert, you know this, most of the heating in California is done. Heating, cooking is done by natural gas, not electric, electrical rates are very high. And what California is trying to do these these advocates, Sierra Club, LD and ej, people, they want to have a single source, they want to have electricity, for everything, for cars for electric vehicles, to heat your house, they want to make it completely electric. And the problem with that is, right now our rates for electricity for utilities in California, are the highest in the nation. On average, we pay 55% more than folks do in neighboring states. We also pay $1 more gallon and gas. So the people that can afford the least right now, with COVID, the economy, homelessness, they’re being forced to pay more, because the people like the Sierra Club that really don’t have their interest in mind as

Robert Bryce  3:57  

well in your letter use and you make that very point and I have I have your letter in hand here. You said that the growing un and assembly woman, Blanca Rubio, who’s from the 48th district, I forgive my California of geography. Where is it? Where’s her district, sir?

Jim Cooper  4:15  

It’s an LA Bolin Park.

Robert Bryce  4:17  

Right. Okay. So she said the growing you and Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio said the growing ban natural gas chorus from organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Union of Concerned Scientists, to name a few has become more aggressive and there has never been a mentioned by them about what the cost impacts would be on customers who are struggling with utility costs and household expenses. More Yeah, more importantly, I’ll just finish because I think this sentence is really the key. It appears their belief in is their belief is cost increases should not be a determining factor with regard to approval of new energy policies, because the need to address climate change, Trumps all concerns that might arise is that it you Is that the fundamental objection that you’re saying that they don’t Trump all other concerns?

Jim Cooper  5:05  

Exactly. Robert is dangerous and scary. And what’s ironic seven years ago, in 2013, California passed the natural gas act, talking about using natural gas to combat climate change. So we made agreements with all these different entities to use natural gas for our buses for a lot of things. And here they go back on their word. So it’s like these, these these ej groups you can’t trust because not

Robert Bryce  5:30  

in some of them. ej I’m sorry, means when I’m sorry.

Jim Cooper  5:33  

Environmental Justice Sierra Club. Some of those folks are outright liars. I can’t say any nicer. They’re a bunch of liars.

Robert Bryce  5:41  

Well, so what is behind this push? You know, these are big groups. I’ve looked at the Sierra Club’s budget, and I’ve criticized them many times. But they’re spending on the order of $40 million dollars a year on efforts on climate change on efforts to to reduce or eliminate the use of hydrocarbons to promote renewables. Why are what? What is your What? You’ve made it several objections here, if you could boil it down? What’s the key objection here to what they’re doing? To the Sierra Club, EDF, the the other environmental groups with regard to the natural gas bans? what’s what’s you if you don’t mind just stated is clearly skin is you can’t what’s what’s your fundamental objection here.

Jim Cooper  6:21  

They’re making it hard on the average person, the average rate payer, a taxpayer, they’re driving your cost and your bills up for energy. And by going all electric, it’s expensive. Now, if it goes all electric, it will be extremely more expensive exponentially. And that’s a scary fact that they control it. And the majority of public really has no idea about it. It sounds good. I mean, climate change is real. We want we all want clean air, but at what cost and their costs, the cost does not matter to them. And it really impacts the average rate payer, who has no idea and that’s unfortunate, as

Robert Bryce  6:54  

well. So it’s interesting you using this idea of environmental justice, because what’s one of the things that I’ve been watching closely, there’s a scholar out of the University of Michigan, Tony Reims, Dr. Tony Reims, who has made this distinction about energy justice versus climate justice. Right. It seems like you’re making a similar kind of argument here in that you’re saying, well, energy justice matters and in access to energy, is it as a social equity issue? Is that a fair assessment?

Jim Cooper  7:23  

Absolutely. I’ve never heard the term energy justice. But yeah, it’s the same thing.

Robert Bryce  7:28  

And it’s the same thing, then I guess, if we were looking back when we talked back in September about the electric vehicle issue, we’re talking about the same kind of issue at hand with the gas and natural gas bans is that is, how do you let me ask the question this way, compare the environment that the energy justice issue with regard to electric vehicles with the natural gas ban issue, are these are these connected? And if so,

Jim Cooper  7:52  

they’re connected? Absolutely. They want everything to be. It’s a single source. I mean, to combat climate change, it can be a variety of things. It can be natural gas, it can be hydrogen, it can be new technologies, but they want it to be a single source, and want to be electricity appear in Sacramento, it is cold in the winter, and it’s hot in the summer. So our utility bills are much higher, because we’re forced to use utilities more. So that drives the cost of living up here substantially, versus folks in the Bay Area or coastal communities. Look at Evie sales, the majority of folks that have bought V’s and gotten rebates, the profile is that they make over $100,000 in over half make $150,000. In California, the median income is probably less than $40,000. So when look, we really do a deep dive into it. It’s it’s really unfair. And why should we as taxpayers, subsidize someone that has an electric vehicle, or someone that has solar on their house, or slower solar on their second house prevocational.

Robert Bryce  8:54  

And because you’re in a you represent a very diverse community and Elk Grove, you represent some neighborhoods that are quite wealthy, and some that are very, that are very low income. So for the is this, this is a pocketbook issue for your constituents?

Jim Cooper  9:09  

Yeah, and just it really all all California has. It’s a big issue. And right now with with the economy and COVID people are struggling to get by. So you’re still going to put food on your table. And now, you still got to pay your utilities, you don’t get a pass on that. You got to drive to work. No one gives you a pass on putting gas in your car. So it’s really making it tough on the middle class. They can’t survive.

Robert Bryce  9:33  

So why is it that why are these environmental groups not more cognizant of this is this fact why aren’t they taking this into the account?

Jim Cooper  9:40  

They don’t care. They’re they’re radical. They’re, they all they care about is it? Obviously, we all want clean air, but their their thing is at any cost. And here’s what’s frustrating for me. I have a lot of agriculture in my district. And you can’t use a tractor and engine here in California. But you use it anywhere else in the country or the world. And that’s the problem. I mean, you look at things. That’s why we pay higher costs for food for everything, because of the policies. These folks have been pushing.

Robert Bryce  10:13  

And these and these folks, who are these folks,

Jim Cooper  10:16  

the environmental, environmental folks, the enviros,

Robert Bryce  10:20  

let me, let me build on your issue on the electric cost, because what’s interesting to me as well about the public Advocate’s office is that they came out last month, in favor of a fine of $255 million dollars against Southern California Gas. This is the consumer advocate ad, pushing for a big fine on one of the biggest gas utilities in the state. Have they done anything like this before that, you know, of where they’re siding with an environmental group against a utility that could cost consumers a lot of money?

Jim Cooper  10:57  

No, no, that’s the crazy part about it. And their job is to protect the ratepayers, and rightly so. But don’t be in cahoots with the environmental folks. I mean, some have good intentions

Robert Bryce  11:08  

that they shouldn’t be in cahoots with the environmental folks. No,

Jim Cooper  11:12  

no, no, you’re a neutral party, you’re neutral. And right now, it’s not neutral, especially when you sign secret agreements. And just think about restaurants, restaurants cook with gas, you come in, you order you fire up gas, it’s on right away, you make the food for the person, electricity is a little bit different. No one wants to cook electricity, it doesn’t work. So just think about how our restaurants are struggling right now. And just trying to pay bills. And if it goes all electric, that is going to drive their cost higher. And it also makes it more difficult to cook, and even even gas when when we’re using short supply. They fire up those those gas things and it turns a turbine, those turbines are going really quickly to fire up electricity, it doesn’t work that way, you don’t flip a switch. So it’s totally different.

Robert Bryce  11:59  

So a lot of if I can interject a quick point, which is that according to the EIA, Energy Information Administration on an on a per Beatty basis on an energy equivalent basis, in California, electricity costs four times as much as natural gas. So it seems to me that’s one of the punch lines here that by forcing consumers to use electricity instead of natural gas, it’s a form of regressive, regressive energy tax, is that I’m not trying to put words in your mouth. But is that is that ring true to you?

Jim Cooper  12:29  

No, it is regressive. And part of the problem is even down to ease, they want everyone drive electric vehicles. They’re not enough charging stations, or enough power sources in the state to charge all these vehicles. They don’t have it. But they’re still pushing, pushing ahead and pushing hard. So it’s a fight every day. And you know, I, I want to stand up for the average person, then you have the environmental attacking me and other legislators over this is because we questioned their tactics.

Robert Bryce  12:59  

Well, and I saw that in fact, one of the political stories made mention of the fact that you had received donations from Sempra, which is the parent of Southern California Gas. So have they come after you? Is this part of their tactic now to try and discredit you?

Jim Cooper  13:13  

And to silence me, but the thing is, I’ve spent 30 years law enforcement, I’ve been threatened before. So this is this is nothing new to me. And it doesn’t I don’t fear these folks. And like I said, at the end of the day, when you ask the average person about paying their utility bills in California, they know it’s high, when you tell them it’s 55% higher. That really pisses them off.

Robert Bryce  13:36  

So then why are they they’re trying to? So you said that, that the the the environmental groups are trying to silence you How, how does that? How do you mean, what have they done in that regard?

Jim Cooper  13:47  

This coming out with articles and what we’re doing, and we get contributions from a lot of folks, the district’s half a million people. So you need money to get your message out there. So I get money from law enforcement from business folks, private people, I mean, unions, I mean, it runs the gamut. So they just try and discredit you as much as they can, because they don’t want anyone speaking up against them. Because if you question them, you’re anti environment. And that’s that’s not the case. I have kids and grandkids one day, I want clean air out there, but it has to be measured in what we do, and it has to be smart.

Robert Bryce  14:21  

I was wondering if you’d seen this UCLA report that came out last November, and I can send you a copy or civet e link to you but they found that it was on electrification and social equity. I’m quoting here, they said whole house electrification programs are likely to exacerbate daily peak electricity loads, and increase total household expenditures on energy. Moreover, the state’s continued reliance on gas peaker plants mean these efforts will only produce modest GHG emissions abatement benefits and they go on saying low income residents and will will be most adversely affected by these changes. That is the the issue You have access to high efficiency appliances as well. So the academics are already recognizing this. Why aren’t the politicians in in just in the last few days, we’ve seen the city of San Jose approve the natural gas ban, the city of Oakland has done the same? Why aren’t they paying attention to the cost issues here

Jim Cooper  15:19  

is the Bay Area and that’s that’s, that’s their values are very progressive. But it’s interesting, the people, they, they claim to help, want to help the most. they impact the most. It doesn’t really help them, it impacts them, it drives their cost up. And it’s just, I mean, like I said, the average person doesn’t really know what’s going on. It has no idea. Like I said, a lot of his insider baseball information

Robert Bryce  15:43  

because they’re too busy to pay attention. And this is not something that that they’re that they’re aware of now and so but but so what can be done and by the way, I’m just gonna interrupt very quickly. I’m talking to Assemblyman Jim Cooper hit you can follow him on twitter at ASM Jim Cooper, we’re talking about the natural gas bans in California and a letter that he and Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio wrote to the California Public Utilities Commission on November 30, objecting to the tactics being used in the natural, natural gas bans and the fact that the state, one of the state agency has sided with a Sierra Club in trying to push the natural gas bans. So what can people do here? I mean, I, this is a national podcast, I’ve international listeners, how, what can people do hear? And why? Why should they care about what’s going on? In these cities in California, as well as in Seattle, Washington recently banned natural gas.

Jim Cooper  16:39  

So my role is educate people. And what happens in California quite often transcends to the rest of the country of the world. So California is a leader in a lot of these things. We’ve done a lot of programs spend a lot of money, and all hasn’t been good. And I’ll point the TVs, there’s only half a million TVs in California yet, if you buy one, you get a rebate. So all the citizens that pay taxes contribute to that rebate. And yet a small percentage of folks get rebates and what that rebate allows you to do. Having that Eevee allows you to drive in the carpooling, a carpool lane was meant for multiple passengers. So if you have money, and you’re well off, or more well to do, you can drive in that carpool lane, just by having that sticker for buying an Eevee. What about someone that a school teacher? Or a firefighter? Or just a gardener? Can’t afford that? That’s where’s where’s the equity? Yeah.

Robert Bryce  17:39  

You’re creating, you’re creating a privileged class on on interest, energy consumption.

Jim Cooper  17:45  

100%. Absolutely. And affordability who can afford it? So it’s kind of a pay to play? If you’ve got money, you can get these things or if you have solar on your house, and solar is great. But why should I? Why should you or me, subsidize solar, someone that has solar on their house. And right now in California, we subsidize individuals that have solar solar is great. The problem is right now, current day, the sun is up pretty much, it is most powerful between 10 and two, four or five o’clock you come home, it’s hot, you want to put your air conditioner on, solar is not going on right now. So that’s the thing with natural gas, you can fire it up to help with that.

Robert Bryce  18:27  

So what’s the next step? And I’m just going to preface this by a quick note, because I’ve been following this issue closely, because I find it to be one of the most interesting energy slash political battles happening anywhere in the US or maybe even in the world. But last Friday, the public Advocate’s office, which is the agency charged with, with protecting consumers, issued a report which warned that and I’m quoting here that electricity prices in the state, which are, as you mentioned, already among the highest in the country, have increased at an alarming rate. And that’s their their phrase increased at an alarming rate, and that the preponderance of that increase is impacting low usage, residential customers. So here a year ago, the Cal advocates office, public Advocate’s office was saying electricity rates are going up at an alarming rate. And now they’re siding with the Sierra Club to force yet more electric electricity use by everyone in the state and right at the expense of the gas utility. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me, it doesn’t make any sense to you.

Jim Cooper  19:26  

Now. It’s ironic, it’s like, like beating your head against the wall. It truly is. It’s frustrating. Like I said, at the end of the day, the people that can afford it, the least are impacted the most. And how do we change that narrative through education, and making people aware of this because they hear about it, and they get mad. So that’s, that’s that’s the limit, educating the public and trying to change the narrative.

Robert Bryce  19:53  

So where does it stand now, Assemblyman, where what is the next step you asked in your letter? For some documents from any common interest agreements that the public Advocate’s office or other organizations have entered into, you’ve asked for delay, as I recall on the right on for the PC on this, where does it stand now?

Jim Cooper  20:14  

Well, it the item was removed from the agenda. So it wasn’t heard, which is good. But it’s still there’s still a lot more work to do. And really accountability, hold these folks accountable and what’s going on. So we’re just starting a new session, a lot of bills have been introduced, really addressing these issues. So we’re doing that it’s like when they come home and say, Hey, don’t use your don’t use your appliances between, you know, four o’clock and nine o’clock at night. Well, if you’re going to bed, and you have money, you can afford to buy dishwasher that turns on automatically if you’re poor, that’s not happening. So we’re trying to give rebates to people that you know, the middle class folks that can afford it for energy saving appliances, refrigerators, dishwashers, stoves, things like that, and just really make people aware. So there’s a number of things we’ve done.

Robert Bryce  21:01  

But that’s related to time of use rates, which California has mostly correct, the state doesn’t. And that was one of the key issues, I think, in the UCLA study was that the the time of use rates is are problematic for working class folks, because they have a very narrow window in which they can do as you say, do their Wash, wash the clothes, you know, heat the, you know, take a shower, all these other things that may coincide with the highest priced electricity feed. So and, you know, I, if I get cynical about this, Assemblyman, I think well, so

Unknown Speaker  21:37  

it’s okay,

Robert Bryce  21:37  

if I get cynical, but that the the government action, that it creates a regressive policy requires more government action to reduce the regressive effect, which is what they’re talking about, but we’re gonna well, because we’re gonna have to counteract a policy that we already enacted. I mean, pretty soon you start chasing your own tail full time, right? Well, where does this end?

Jim Cooper  22:01  

It doesn’t, it doesn’t it’s frustrating as a legislator to know the information and see what’s going on. And folks in that realm, just to totally ignore it, maybe to have a deliberate indifference. They don’t care. Because they have an agenda. And they’ll build. They’ll support that agenda at any cost. And it ends up costing, you know, the ratepayer the most. And that’s the sad thing about it.

Robert Bryce  22:32  

Well, listen, I know you’ve got other I promised you, I wasn’t gonna take more than 20 or 30 minutes. But I think that idea about deliberate indifference is a powerful phrase. And I appreciate it, Assemblyman, I know that you’re working with a number of other people on these issues. And please keep me posted, because, as I said, I find this issue of energy justice, I think, is one of the issues that’s really emerging as a key in, as you say, climate change is a concern. But it’s not the only concern. And right, what I see in a lot of these states in California, I think it right now is the one that it where the conflict is the most obvious that this is the this conflict between efforts on climate justice is colliding with a more fundamental issue of energy justice. And it’s, it’s it’s a difficult issue, but I’m pleased that you’re paying attention and I want to, you know, this is the second time I’ve had you on, you know, 2021 is coming up, we might have to do it again.

Jim Cooper  23:32  

Yeah. And Robert, that’s the sad part about this is right now present day, it’s about survival for people. It’s about paying your mortgage, paying your rent, paying utilities, putting food on the table, and keeping your job. That’s, that’s, that’s number one right now. None of this other stuff. Just anything, unless you survive. And that is so ironic, and hopefully it’s not lost on your listeners.

Robert Bryce  23:58  

Well, I don’t I don’t think it will be so look, we I’d love to talk to you more, but I know you’ve got other fish to fry today. So I will let you go. Uh, good to catch up with you again, and we’ll be in touch. I take care of my friend. Okay. Thanks a lot. Bye.

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