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California Requires Pensions to Drop Coal Companies

Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed 23 new environmental bills into law, banning tiny plastic beads in cosmetics that scientists say are polluting the ocean and San Francisco Bay, toughening oil pipeline laws and requiring the state's massive pension funds to sell off their coal stocks.

By Paul Rogers

Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed 23 new environmental bills into law, banning tiny plastic beads in cosmetics that scientists say are polluting the ocean and San Francisco Bay, toughening oil pipeline laws and requiring the state's massive pension funds to sell off their coal stocks.

The flurry of green legislation came one day after Brown signed a sweeping measure, SB 350, by state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, that requires half of all the state's electricity to come from renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal power in the next 15 years.

Perhaps the most high-profile bill Thursday was another clean energy and global warming bill by de Leon, the leader of the Senate: SB 185. The measure requires the massive California Public Employees Retirement System, known as CalPERS, and the California State Teachers Retirement System, or CalSTRS, to sell off all stocks in companies that derive more than 50 percent of their revenue from mining coal by July 1, 2017.

The two pension funds have a combined $299 million in such investments.

"California is once again proving that we walk the walk, and talk the talk, when it comes to battling climate change," said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, a nonprofit advocacy group. "This is just the beginning: We will now encourage all cities, counties, universities and others to follow suit and divest from coal."

Over the past several years, environmental groups concerned about the Earth's steadily warming climate and the failure of Congress to pass measures limiting fossil fuels have pushed for governments to sell off coal stocks, similar to the way that activists in the 1980s urged divestment from companies doing business in South Africa.

The efforts are gathering momentum.

Last month, the University of California announced it has sold off the $200 million it had invested in coal and oil sands companies. A year ago, Stanford University agreed to divest from coal mining companies. Oxford, Georgetown, Humboldt State, San Francisco State and other universities have made similar commitments as have the Church of England, Church of Sweden and numerous U.S. cities, including Palo Alto, Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, San Francisco and Santa Monica.

Also Thursday, Brown took action to limit plastic pollution from rivers, bays and the ocean.

The Democratic governor signed AB 888, by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, which bans plastic "microbeads" in facial scrubs, toothpastes and other personal care products sold in California by Jan. 1, 2020.

The plastics wash down the drain, and pass through sewage treatment plants. A study last month by the San Francisco Estuary Institute found 3.9 million tiny pieces of plastic washing into San Francisco Bay every day, many of them microbeads, from eight large sewage treatment plants. The bill, which was opposed for much of the session by large cosmetics and toothpaste companies, is the toughest ban in the nation, outlawing even "biodegradable" plastics.

"It's crazy for companies to intentionally put tiny plastic beads in our soap and in our toothpaste -- products that get washed down the drain and into our environment," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. "Governor Brown has just signed the nation's toughest law to prohibit this polluting practice."

Meanwhile, Brown also signed:

* AB 864, by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara. The bill -- a response to a pipeline failure in Santa Barbara County this May that dumped up to 140,000 gallons of crude oil, killing 195 birds and 106 dolphins, sea lions and other marine mammals -- requires oil pipelines in coastal areas to have automatic shut-off valves and modern leak detection equipment.

* AB 1236, by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco. In an effort to expand the number of charging stations for electric vehicles, at homes, apartment buildings and businesses, the bill requires every county and city in California by Sept. 30, 2016, to create an expedited permitting and inspection process for electric vehicle charging stations.

* AB 1448, by Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando, which prohibits homeowners associations and landlords from banning tenants from using clotheslines and drying racks, as a way to conserve electricity use from clothes dryers.

(c)2015 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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