New doubt about Arnold’s shade of green | SierraSun.com

New doubt about Arnold’s shade of green

Thomas Elias

National magazines in recent weeks have made Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a cover boy symbol for a worldwide battle against greenhouse gases and global warming.

He’s traveled the globe, meeting with presidents, prime ministers, provincial governors and premiers to promote carbon emission exchanges and credits, all part of an effort to remove as much carbon dioxide (CO2) and other warming gases from the atmosphere.

All the while, here at home he was trying to eliminate a 42-year-old program that removes at least 1.75 million tons of CO2 from the air every year at a relatively small cost to the state and no cost to businesses.

That program is called the Williamson Act, named for John Williamson, a 1960s-era Republican assemblyman from Kern County who devised a system of subsidizing farmers’ property taxes if they pledge to keep their land in agriculture for periods of 10 or 20 years. Cost to the state this year was projected at $39 million to protect 16.5 million acres of farmland from development.

Did Schwarzenegger have any clue how much CO2 that land pulls from the air each year? Nope, says his press secretary.

“We don’t have any kind of data on carbon absorbed by Williamson Act land,” press secretary Aaron McLear said in an e-mail. “We’re talking about farmland…not forest land.” Then he adds, probably being facetious, “On a good chunk of that…land, animals are grazing – including cows, which we all know emit methane. So arguably, this would contribute to our global warming problem.”

Well, Governor, you might not know how much carbon is absorbed by farmland, but others do. A Purdue University study early in this decade put the figure at an average of .107 tons per acre removed from the atmosphere. That was for all types of farmland, including grazing land, orchards, vineyards, rice fields, cotton fields and more. The math works out to a total of 1.765 million tons of carbon absorbed yearly by those 16.5 million Williamson Act acres. The figure accounted for cattle emissions and for pollution by farm machines.

Which does not include CO2 emissions avoided because that land has not been urbanized. And one late-1990s poll of farmers with land under Williamson Act contracts indicated that at least one-third of them would have sold their land to developers by then if not for the state tax subsidy.

State legislators did not allow the money to be left out of the budget very long, reinstating the $39 million just before Schwarzenegger met with new French President Nicolas Sarkozy to hype the fight against climate change. It remains to be seen whether Schwarzenegger will still blue-pencil the Williamson Act into oblivion after 42 years of usefulness via a line-item veto. He refuses to say what he’ll do after legislators finally pass a new budget.

Plainly, the governor was sensitive to charges of hypocrisy when he submitted his budget plan sans the Williamson Act money, which amounted to a bare pittance compared to the $103 billion total spending plan.

On the very page where he called for eliminating the subsidy, he cited a 2004 recommendation by the state legislative analyst calling for gradual elimination of the subsidy. Then he listed three other open space preservation efforts he has supported, including setting up the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to protect 25 million acres of wild land.

The difference between that land and farmland protected by the Williamson Act is that the Sierra Nevada land is largely unbuildable and would never be developed regardless of government intervention. But hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of farmland acres have already been built over.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger’s agriculture secretary, A.G. Kawamura, wrote a letter to a newspaper insisting that ending the subsidy does not mean an end to the Williamson Act. “We are calling the counties and asking them to continue the program,” he said.

But like Julia Berry, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, other agriculture leaders call the putative cut a “de facto repeal of the Williamson Act.” That’s because almost no California county can afford to put millions of dollars into something the state has paid for from the start.

Which means that if Schwarzenegger insists on the cut, over the next ten years, millions of acres will gradually become available to developers and cease to mitigate global warming. Instead, their new occupants will be producing greenhouse gases.

Which would be a most ironic legacy for a governor who styles himself the world leader in the fight against climate change.