What Happened in the California Legislature in 2023?

October 5, 2023 | 7:00 am
Carole J. Buckwalter/Wikimedia Commons
Daniel Barad
Western States Policy Manager

When I started with Union of Concerned Scientists back in January, the California legislative session was just ramping up. As bill introductions trickled in, it became clear there would be plenty of opportunities for UCS to leverage our science-based research to inform world-leading policy solutions.  

As the trickle of bills became a rushing river of committee hearings, budget negotiations, and floor votes, not only did we stay afloat, but we built a solid, evidence-backed raft that will keep us skillfully navigating the treacherous white waters of the California legislature.

Now that I have reached the extent of my white-water rafting knowledge, here is a recap of our very productive session:  

Electric vehicle directionality stalled but will return

UCS co-sponsored Senator Nancy Skinner’s Senate Bill 233 (SB 233) which would have required all electric vehicles to be bidirectional by 2030. Bidirectional means the battery in your electric car powers the car (one direction) and could provide power for your home, appliances, power tools, and even the grid (the second direction). Bidirectional capable EVs could provide huge benefits to Californians when the power goes out or when the grid is strained by high electricity demand.

The bill stalled at the very end of session, but the UCS will continue to work to advance bidirectional charging in California.

Funding for zero-emission vehicle and charging was renewed

UCS joined a broad coalition of environmental, environmental justice, business and public health groups to push for the extension of vehicle registration fees that would fund $170 million annually for zero-emission vehicle incentives and charging infrastructure.

After months of negotiations, at 11:40 pm on the last night of session, Assembly Bill 126 (Reyes) passed the Assembly floor and now sits on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature!

This legislation also included important updates to the fee program that will ensure these funds are spent in the communities that need them the most.

California’s trucks cleaned up and defended

Speaking of vehicles, over the past two years, UCS advocated for the California Air Resources Board to strengthen and eventually adopt the Advanced Clean Fleets rule, which it did earlier this year. This regulation requires 100% of new medium- and heavy-duty trucks (anything from delivery vans to big rigs) sold in California to be zero emissions by 2036 and 100% of large fleets to be zero emissions by 2045.

Before we even had a chance to celebrate that historic victory, industry interests forced us to (successfully) push back against a bill that would have exempted a large swath of California from complying with the rule. That bill included an audit that could have undermined the rule before it was even finalized.

There will be more industry-led efforts to undermine the lifesaving, climate crisis-slowing Advanced Clean Fleets rule and we will be ready to stop them in their tracks.

An important step taken towards getting water rights right

California’s water rights system is outdated, unjust, and needs to be reformed. We supported three bills this year to give the state additional oversight and enforcement power over senior water rights holders, who also happen to be among the most powerful corporate interests in the state.

Senate Bill 389, which simply would give the State Water Board the long-overdue authority to confirm that water rights holders have the water rights they say they do, passed the legislature and is on the governor’s desk.

The remaining bills, Assembly Bill 460 and Assembly Bill 1337, were unable to make it out of the Senate Natural Resources and Water committee. They are still alive and can be advanced next session; We will not stop working to pass them.

To regionalize or not to regionalize remains unanswered

Early in the legislative session, Assemblymember Chris Holden introduced Assembly Bill 538 which would have changed the governance of the California’s grid operator from a governor-appointed board to an independent structure that would allow for a more coordinated, region-wide grid.  

UCS served as a resource to stakeholders, legislators, and legislative staff on all sides of this bill by writing a detailed policy brief explaining the risks and benefits of the proposal. Regionalizing the grid could allow California to take advantage of renewable energy in other states such as wind power from Wyoming and hydropower in the Pacific Northwest. But it also would require California to give up some of its energy autonomy.

Ultimately, the bill did not pass, but the idea lives on and UCS plans to stay engaged in a multi-state initiative to chart a thoughtful path towards regional grid coordination.

A win for offshore wind, geothermal power and long duration storage

UCS supported Assembly Bill 1373 by Assemblymember Eduardo García. This bill would create a Central Procurement Entity that would allow the state to purchase renewable energy resources that are often neglected by utilities because they take a long time to develop and are too massive for a single utility to take on by itself. These resources include offshore wind, geothermal, and long duration storage such as pumped hydro.

This bill passed both the Assembly and Senate with wide margins and the governor has already been vocal about his support.

California takes a world-leading stance on corporate accountability

Just before Governor Newsom and Attorney General Bonta announced California’s historic lawsuit against major fossil fuel producers in September, the California legislature passed two bills that will further help the state hold large corporations accountable.

Senate Bill 253 by Senator Scott Wiener will require large corporations to transparently disclose the greenhouse gas emission associated with their entire supply chain. And Senate Bill 261 by Senator Henry Stern will require these companies to publicly disclose their climate-related financial risk.

UCS supported these bills. We joined three other environmental organizations who are working to advance a rule on these issues through the Securities and Exchange Commission. We are urging the governor to lead the nation and sign these bills. He has since publicly pledged to do so.

Be ready to take action

UCS is going to keep pushing for the strongest, science-backed public policies possible in California. The legislature is taking some much-needed time off, but it will be back in January 2024. We will keep you updated via our blogs, but please also keep an eye on your inbox for opportunities to call your legislators or submit comments to agencies.