The environmental movement bumped into a bad economy in Sacramento this year, and there's little doubt who came up on the short end.

"For the environment, this is probably the least productive year in a decade," said Warner Chabot, executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters.

With unemployment at 12 percent, the state facing continued deficits and a national climate hostile to many new government regulations, the political will in Sacramento -- even among Democrats -- for broad new conservation measures was largely drowned out this year.

As California's 2011 legislative session wound down at midnight Friday, environmentalists who had hoped a year ago that the election of Democrat Jerry Brown as governor might bring a wave of new green laws were instead left to consider a few small victories, and plenty of disappointment.

Among the modest results: A ban on shark fin soup. A penny per-barrel increase on the fee oil companies pay to fund California's oil spill programs. And a prohibition on a controversial chemical used in baby bottles.

"The economy has eliminated doing almost anything that involves money," Chabot said, "and there is a sensitivity to new regulations."

Sacramento's experience is part of a wider trend. On the national stage, regulation has become an even dirtier word. With job creation taking center stage in the 2012 campaign, Republican presidential contenders are questioning the now well-established science behind global warming, and even President Barack Obama irked environmentalists last week when he failed to beef up national smog standards.

Winners and losers

Now, all eyes are on Brown, who has 30 days to sign or veto the bills the Legislature sent him.
Among the main environmental bills on his desk are:

  • Shark fin soup. AB 376 by Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Mountain View, would ban the sale of shark fins in California. Every year, up to 73 million sharks are killed worldwide to make shark fin soup. Supporters, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Humane Society and basketball star Yao Ming, say the bill is needed to end the practice of catching sharks, cutting off their fins and throwing them back in the ocean to slowly bleed to death. Opponents, including Chinese restaurants, state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, say shark fin soup is an important part of Chinese culture and that the bill is culturally insensitive.

  • Oil spill funding. AB 1112 by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, would increase the fee that oil companies pay to import oil into California from 5 cents per barrel to 6.5 cents. Without the bill, which had been opposed by British Petroleum and the Western States Petroleum Association, California's oil spill response programs will run a $5.6 million deficit by 2013, requiring layoffs. Because of strong opposition, Huffman inserted a three-year expiration in the bill to win enough votes, so the battle will be back in 2015.


  • Chemicals. AB 1319, by Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, D-El Segundo, would ban the use of the chemical bisphenol A in baby bottles and sippy cups. The chemical has been linked to breast cancer and developmental problems in laboratory rats. The chemical and grocery industries staunchly opposed the bill, saying the levels that humans are exposed to are so minuscule that they are safe.


  • Other bills to allow nonprofit groups to keep state parks open (AB 42), extend property tax breaks for open space (AB 703), and adjust funds ratepayers pay to fund solar initiatives (SB 585) also made it to Brown's desk.

    For every victory, however, there were many more losses for environmentalists:

  • Plastics. On Friday, a closely watched bill to ban the use of food containers made of polystyrene plastic like Styrofoam failed to advance in the Assembly. The grocery, chemical and plastics industry said it would place unfair burdens on business.

  • Renewable energy. Late Friday, lawmakers killed an effort to extend until 2020 the "public goods charge," a 1.5 percent tax on utility bills put in place in 1996 by former state Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, that raises roughly $400 million a year for renewable energy projects and research grants for solar, wind and other new technologies. The measure, AB 724, needed a two-thirds vote, but was opposed by anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist. No Republican voted for it.

  • Batteries. In May, a bill stalled that would have required battery producers to set up and finance programs to recycle old batteries. It was opposed by grocers, technology companies and other industry groups who said it imposed costly new regulations.

  • Water meters. Apartment owners would have been required to put individual water meters on each unit in new construction under a bill by Assemblyman Fong. Supported by the Sierra Club and others as a way to conserve water, it was opposed by the California Apartment Association, California Building Industry Association and other industry groups, who said it was a costly mandate in a rough real estate market.

  • Lawmakers also killed or tabled until next year environmental bills to restrict a controversial oil and gas practice called hydraulic fracking, a bill to tightly regulate the catch of "forage species" of fish like sardines, herring or market squid; and an effort to abolish the California Air Resources Board. Significantly, they also approved a bill supported by labor unions, but opposed by environmental groups, to fast-track legal challenges to new construction projects larger than $100 million, such as sports stadiums, until 2015.
    GOP opposition
    Business groups say it is only right that eco-measures were kept in check this year.
    "The key for employers is certainty, and over-regulation is the single biggest cause of uncertainty in the California business climate," said Loren Kaye, president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, an arm of the California Chamber of Commerce.
    Republicans almost universally voted this year against new environmental laws, as they have for much of the past decade.
    Huffman, who is chairman of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, said that newly drawn districts and term limits, along with the tight economy, had many lawmakers particularly cautious of doing anything this year that might come back and be used in next November's elections.
    "Everybody is looking over their shoulder left and right and not wanting to do things that upset industry supporters," he said.
    Many environmental groups said the biggest victory of the year came in April when the governor signed SB 2X, a measure by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, to require the state's utilities to produce 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
    That bill passed in a special session on jobs.
    "I was in some ways fortunate that the issue got teed up earlier in the year and didn't get caught up in the larger push and shove that always happens at the end of the year," Simitian said.