Fran Pavley: Environmental star plays on world’s stage

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Fran Pavley

To the extent there are such things as environmental rock stars, former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley is one. But you wouldn’t know it in California.

Pavley, author of two nationally imitated and internationally renowned bills to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, is hardly well-known in a state where Hollywood rules and a former action movie hero is a sitting governor. These days, however, she is an environmental A-lister.

Talk to any air-quality regulator outside the Golden State and you’ll likely hear them refer not to the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, but simply “the Pavley bill.” Sen. Sheila Kuehl, herself a former television celebrity, describes what it’s like to hold meetings with the schoolteacher-turned global-warming expert.

“They go around the table and different people will say, ‘Well, we’re enacting the Pavley bill here, and we’re doing this like the Pavley bill there.’ And they finally get to her and she says, ‘Well, I’m Pavley,’ and they’re completely stunned.”

In the interview for this article, Pavley said she had just come home from an international conference on climate change in Sussex, England. That day, she was traveling to Sacramento from her home in Agoura to speak at the California Air Resources Board’s workshop on Global Climate Change and Public Health and to accept an award for her leadership in air-quality policy.

This soft-spoken woman, with salt-and-pepper hair and a polite smile befitting her past life as a middle school civics teacher, indeed seems an unlikely heroine for the global-warming cause. But that’s what she is. First, she authored the landmark 2003 law to curb carbon emissions from vehicles. Then, last year she authored AB 32, which applies first-in-the-nation emission limits to factories and other stationary emitters.

Even her critics-and there are many, especially those involved in the lawsuits prompted by the rules she authored-agree that those who underestimated her in the past have been sorely mistaken.

Spending 28 years as a teacher at Chaparral Middle School in Moorpark, Pavley was also very active in local politics. Leading the charge for cityhood in Agoura Hills due to what residents believed was runaway growth, Pavley became the city’s first mayor in 1982.

Louise Rishoff, who served 10 years on the City Council with Pavley and later staffed her Assembly district office, says her background in environmental issues stretches far back. “She was fiercely protective of the open spaces, the ridge lines, the oak trees,” recalled Rishoff.

Pavley’s service on the California Coastal Commission and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy board helped whet her appetite for environmental policymaking before her arrival to Sacramento.

As a freshman legislator in 2000, Pavley introduced AB 1493, what longtime environmental advocate V. John White calls a “little, two-paragraph bill” that didn’t get much notice at first. This little bill, which sought to limit automobile emissions starting with 2009 models, would take on some of the most organized and influential interests-car manufacturers and dealerships.

Pavley said it was almost by accident. “I didn’t really understand the scope of the opposition. To me, cleaning up the air, addressing global warming was sort of motherhood and apple pie.”

As the opposition mounted, however, Pavley discovered that the auto industry didn’t feel the same way. A coalition of car manufacturers, oil companies and auto dealerships mounted an aggressive campaign, hinging on conservative radio talk shows and glossy advertisements.

Pavley said their “campaign of misinformation” included claims that the bill would allow the Air Resources Board to levy taxes on gasoline and restrict individual mileage.

Anne Baker, Pavley’s former staffer who worked closely with her on AB 1493, said she turned the experience into something productive. “Her answer was ‘What do we do to move forward? What do we need to do to win?'”

With few resources to pit against the opposition campaign, Pavley relied on what Rishoff says is her best skill: building relationships and relating to her colleagues. “She individually met with over 40 members, half of the chamber, to work on this,” Baker said.

This dogged persistence and her own methodical execution earned the respect of her colleagues, particularly of the legislative leadership. Herb Wesson, who became speaker of the Assembly in the middle of AB 1493’s road to passage, said, “She was always prepared. Good teachers know how to answer questions directly and then move on. She knew her issues.”

Wesson, who also happened to be Pavley’s seatmate on the Assembly floor, and then-Senate President Pro Tem John Burton used a substantial amount of legislative arm-twisting and procedural maneuvers to help get the tailpipe-emissions bill passed.

Kuehl said it was an indication of how deeply Pavley had impressed them. “John Burton went over to the floor of the Assembly on the vote. Rarely would he go over to twist arms on a bill that wasn’t his or wasn’t a Senate bill… Everyone really recognized that this freshman… was really onto something and had done her homework.”

Asked about his reasons for taking interest in such controversial policy, Burton simply said, “It wasn’t controversial to me.” Burton said he was impressed that a freshman would have the guts to introduce such legislation. “I guess she was very stubborn… which is a good thing when you’ve got an important bill to pass.”

Pavley said her first encounter with the hardball politics of the oil and car lobbies left her and her staff drained. For a year following the bill’s passage, “My staff and I focused on children and puppies.”

Still, her work as a pioneer in emissions regulation has paid off. Pavley’s handiwork has been replicated across the nation. Twelve other states have adopted the standards set out in the tailpipe-emissions bill. California also is poised to lead the nation with AB 32, which is the better-known bill of the two, though Pavley says it was much easier to pass. The tension over how to turn decree into action, however, has tripped up these laws.

Not everyone is so happy with Pavley. AB 1493 has been held up by a number of lawsuits pursued by automakers who call the statute unworkable, and lawmakers have been unable to obtain a green light from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin enforcement.

If she has it her way, Pavley may again become more central to navigating the regulatory waters. Termed-out of the Assembly in 2006, Pavley has spent the last year speaking at environmental conferences, working as a consultant at the National Resources Defense Council and spending more time with her husband and two children.

And campaigning. Pavley now has her eyes on a new prize: termed-out Kuehl’s Senate seat, which will be up for grabs next year. Kuehl, for one, couldn’t be happier. “There is no one in the Senate, including myself, that has the same knowledge and understanding on environmental issues as Fran… As much as she really wants to be in the Senate, I think the Senate needs her.”