From escalating drought to a flood of funding; from epic wildlife encounters to unprecedented energy battles — 2022 was a momentous year for environmental issues in Southern California.
In some ways, 2023 looks to be no less notable. Forecasts call for another dry winter, environmental bills are already on the table, and key deadlines are coming. But the coming year also could be a legislative challenge, as advocates will find it tougher to advance ambitious climate rules in a Republican-controlled House and California is expected to flip from historic budget surpluses to a significant deficit.
Despite those headwinds, Melissa Romero, senior legislative manager for California Environmental Voters, argues the that the state has a “moral obligation” to double down on climate issues in 2023.
Looking at how climate change already is affecting Californians’ water supply, wildfire risks and more, she said: “We really don’t have a choice. It’s a health and safety issue for us now.”
While environmental advocates say the focus for 2023 remains the development of a safe, reliable and fossil-free energy grid, two key phrases also repeatedly come up — environmental justice and biodiversity.
As costs escalate for clean water and energy, advocates say it’s important to ensure that vulnerable communities don’t get stuck, yet again, with carrying the heaviest burdens of climate change. That’s why Gregory Pierce, who helps lead the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, says it’ll be crucial in 2023 to lock down a permanent statewide water affordability program and for state and local utilities to commit to a 100% renewable energy program that doesn’t price out lower income households.
Europe’s rising energy costs, Pierce said, serve as an example of what could happen here without such environmental justice plans in place. And while there’s plenty of talk and funding around these issues here, Pierce said there’s still a lot of work to be done to create a reality in which affordable clean energy and water is viewed as a human right in California.
Kelly Herbinson, joint executive director for the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said another issue the state must grapple with next year is to make sure that renewable energy projects don’t contribute to an already worrisome loss of biodiversity — including reduced numbers of birds, insects and plants.
“Every year we lose thousands of acres of desert habitat — home to myriad species of incredibly important plants and animals like Joshua trees, bighorn sheep and desert tortoises — to development, sometimes for poorly-sited renewable energy,” Herbinson said. Since ecosystems like California deserts absorb 10% of the state’s carbon and are “essential to life on Earth,” Herbinson said her organization’s focus in 2023 will be ensuring that those systems continue to support the biodiversity, including the humans, they contain.
With those priorities in mind, here’s a timeline of some key climate and environment issues expected to affect Southern Californians in 2023.
Jan. 1: New laws and regulations take effect — At the start of the year, new oil and gas wells must be located no less than 3,200 feet away from homes, schools, nursing homes or hospitals, and no major retrofits can happen on existing wells within that buffer. Backers of a ballot measure to block that law say they’ve submitted enough signatures to stall implementation until a 2024 vote. But claims of fraud about those signatures have emerged, and unless they’re validated by the Secretary of State the law is clear to take effect.
Portions of the Safer Food Packaging and Cookware Act also are set to kick in Jan. 1. The new rules ban the use of toxic “forever” chemicals (known as PFAS) in paper-based food packaging, and they call for companies to disclose the use of such chemicals in cookware.
It’ll also be illegal to sell new fur products in California. And, with few exceptions, it’ll be illegal to drive diesel, heavy-duty trucks and buses without 2010 model year or newer engines.
Makers of plastic beverage containers will face penalties if at least 15% of their material isn’t recyclable. And the new year will see the start of a controversial flat-rate, per-ton tax on the production of lithium, a critical component of electric vehicle batteries that soon could be extracted near the Salton Sea.
Jan. 4: California legislature reconvenes — Nearly two dozen of the 173 bills and resolutions introduced since this session’s legislators were seated Dec. 5 deal explicitly with climate or environmental issues. These include bills to develop recycling plans for solar panels, to boost offshore wind programs, to limit light pollution, to accelerate clean air goals (similar legislation was shot down in 2022), to step up beaver conservation and to make a grant program for “pocket forests.”
The fact that several of these bills came from freshmen lawmakers makes environmental activist Romero optimistic for 2023. “We’re seeing a lot of new members come in with big climate ambitions, so I think that’s going to translate into big climate wins this year.”
Jan. 10: Initial state budget deadline — Gov. Gavin Newsom must present his 2023-24 fiscal year budget by this date. Newsom signed a record-breaking $308 billion budget for the current fiscal year, with a massive surplus leading to a number of one-time expenditures to pay for climate change issues. But in the year ahead California is expected to face a deficit of up to $24 billion, and that’s without factoring in a potential recession.
Romero still hopes to see significant funding for projects to address issues such as drought, as California faces the prospect of an unprecedented third year of dry La Niña conditions. The drought threatens reservoirs and raises the risks for wildfires. That’s why Erin Weiner, a graduate biology student at Cal State Long Beach who plans to finish a thesis in 2023 on how wildfires impact wildlife, said the drought remains the most important environmental issue for the year ahead.
Jan. 31: Deadline for Colorado River agreement — The federal government has given California, Arizona and Nevada until Jan. 31 to agree on a plan to reduce imports from the dwindling Colorado River by up to 30% a year. Otherwise, federal regulators will impose cuts to stave off concerns that the river might soon hit “dead pool” levels, where water wouldn’t flow past Hoover Dam. For millions of Southern Californians who rely on the river for portions of their water supply, the result could be mandatory restrictions.
Feb. 17: Bill deadline — Lawmakers have until this date to introduce bills they want considered this session. One high-profile proposal is a plan, introduced this month by Newsom, that would force oil companies to pay a “price-gouging penalty” when gas prices soar. Romero anticipates other bills could be introduced that would spell out details for how California can reach carbon neutrality by 2045, as required by an updated plan recently approved by the Air Resources Board.
March 1: Hazardous waste report — The Department of Toxic Substances Control must publish its first ever Hazardous Waste Management Report, as a baseline for creating a statewide Hazardous Waste Management Plan by March 1, 2025.
Spring: Cleaner trucks and buses — The California Air Resources Board is expected to hold a second hearing and vote on regulations aimed at creating emission-free fleets of medium and heavy-duty vehicles by 2045.
June 2: First bill passage deadline — This is the last day for bills to pass the House where they were introduced, which will offer a first sense of which environmental bills stand a chance of advancing in 2023.
June 15: State budget deadline — California lawmakers must pass the budget by this date, which will outline all environmental projects that will receive funding in the coming fiscal year.
July 1: Greener cement — By this date, the Air Resources Board must develop a plan to cut cement-industry carbon emissions by at least 40% by 2030, a key step to reaching carbon neutrality by 2045.
Sept. 14: Final bill passage deadline — This is the last day for the House and Assembly to pass bills this session.
Fall: Nod to Erin Brockovich — The State Water Resources Control Board could vote on a maximum contaminant level for hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing chemical that’s poisoned water supplies in places like Hinkley, as made famous in the Julia Roberts film.
Oct. 5-15: Orange County Sustainability Decathlon — Orange County will host its first sustainability decathlon at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa. During the week-long event, 20 university-led teams from around the world will compete to create zero-emission, all-electric homes. Fred Smoller, a professor at Chapman University who’s helping to spearhead the event, said part of his goal is “to help make Orange County the Sustainability Capital of the World.”
Oct. 14: Bill signing deadline — Newsom has until this date to sign or veto all legislation that passed both chambers, determining which climate bills will die, apply immediately or kick in as of Jan. 1, 2024.