Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman labeled herself an environmentalist during a visit to a green-tech firm Tuesday, but said support for the environment needs to be tempered with a reduction in regulations for California businesses.
"I am an environmentalist. Everyone probably in this room is an environmentalist," she said to a crowd of about 40 people at SynapSense, in the Sacramento suburb of Folsom. "But the truth is we've got to bring back some balance between the environment and the needs of jobs and people. So whether it is the farmers, whether it is, you know, your business, the permitting, the regulation is strangling businesses."
Some of Whitman's positions seem to run counter to conventional environmental thinking, though.
She wants to suspend California's 2006 landmark global warming law for a year to assess its effect on the state's economy if she is elected, although she declined Tuesday to take a position on a November ballot measure that would suspend the law indefinitely.
Her comments Tuesday also were a shift from her more conservative tone during the GOP primary, when she called the law a job-killer. During a debate against rival Steve Poizner, Whitman was asked to say definitively whether she believes climate change is man-made.
"I don't know. I'm not a scientist," she said then.
When asked Tuesday whether she still believes California's global warming law, commonly known as AB32, is a job-killer, she said "it certainly kills jobs in certain industries, no question about it."
Yet most of AB32's provisions won't take effect until 2012, and studies have come to different conclusions about whether the law would reduce or create jobs in California over the long term.
The law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger mandates that the state cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and requires manufacturers and other polluters to lower their emissions or pay for the carbon they emit.
The state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office concluded in May that the climate regulations would have a near-term negative effect, but said the overall effects are likely to be modest relative to California's $1.7 trillion annual economy.
Whitman intends to trigger a so-called "safety valve" in the law that allows a governor to suspend climate regulations in "extraordinary circumstances, catastrophic events, or threat of significant economic harm." Schwarzenegger demanded the provision on behalf of business interests when he was negotiating the bill with Democrats in 2006.
Schwarzenegger is leading a coalition of interests fighting the November ballot initiative, which is backed primarily by out-of-state oil companies. Supporters of Proposition 23 raised $2.1 million from April 1 to June 30 and have nearly $43,000 cash on hand, according to campaign finance reports filed this week, while two groups opposing the initiative raised about $2.4 million and have nearly $1.4 million cash on hand.
The initiative would delay the regulations until California's unemployment rate - now at 12.3 percent - drops to 5.5 percent and stays there for four consecutive quarters, something that has happened just three times during the last three decades.
Whitman's rival in the November general election, Democrat Jerry Brown, supports AB32 and is against the ballot measure to repeal it. Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said Whitman must be using a different dictionary than everyone else in labeling herself an environmentalist.
"I can't imagine an environmentalist opposing landmark climate legislation that would preserve California's environment and help us capture the 21st century economy at the same time," he said.
The Sierra Club, which has endorsed Brown, also criticized Whitman's declaration Tuesday.
"If Meg Whitman is an environmentalist, then BP is the socially responsible company of the year," said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California. He also said she has flip-flopped on the issue of drilling for oil off the California coast.
The Sierra Club was among several environmental groups that initially backed a proposal to expand drilling from an existing platform into an oil field in state-regulated waters off the coast of Santa Barbara County. Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for the project after the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Brown has consistently opposed expanded offshore drilling. Whitman has said she opposes the Santa Barbara project until she can be convinced it would have a "near zero" impact on the environment.
Whitman was visiting SynapSense, a four year-old company with about 30 employees that sells energy-saving software and hardware for call centers, according to president and chief executive Peter van Deventer.