California touts itself as the green leader and advocate for environmental justice. However, the state’s actions to help the environment often come on the disadvantaged communities’ backs.

In a sharply written letter to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the environmental community, California Democratic Assemblyman Jim Cooper recently pointed out some of the inequities in California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project (CVRP). In his open letter, Assemblyman Cooper said:

“According to California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, one high median income Senate district received more than $29 million in EV rebates, while six of the poorest Senate districts combined received less than one coastal district.” He further argued that actions such as these “systematically drive racial economic inequities and fuel environmental racism.”

It’s hard to believe Cooper’s accusations. After all, the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project is part of the State’s climate investments, which use funds from the CARB cap and trade auctions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide other benefits. CVRP offers up to $7,000 for the purchase of new zero-emission or plug-in hybrid cars. The issue with this program is that only people with disposable income are buying zero-emission vehicles.  In reviewing the figures from CVRP’s website, the problem is even worse than Assemblyman Cooper portrayed. 

Cooper compared a Southern California Senate District to the Central Valley.  However, the Senate District he used did not receive the most in terms of rebates.  In fact, six Senate districts received more in rebates than the one mentioned by the Assemblyman. Senate District 15, which includes the San Jose and Santa Clara area, received the most in rebates at more than $57 million. 

Meanwhile, the 14th Senate District, a Central Valley district that stretches from Fresno to Bakersfield, received the least at only $2.1 million in EV rebates.  The San Jose district received more than 26 times the amount the Central Valley district received.

The discrepancy in funds might make sense if there was a significant difference in air emissions and air quality.  After all, CARB “is charged with protecting the public from the harmful effects of air pollution and developing programs and actions to fight climate change.”  However, according to CARB figures, there are roughly three times the greenhouse gas emissions in the Central Valley district than the San Jose Senate District.

To exacerbate the problem, the Central Valley Senate district is one of the most impoverished in the State.  The median household income is $38,500, which is half the state average.  Over 30 percent of the district residents live in poverty.  The average house price is approximately $165,000 in this primarily Latino legislative district.

The San Jose Senate district has a median household income of $107,000, with more than half the households making more than $100,000.  The poverty level is just 8.8 percent.  The average house price is approximately $913,000, which is double the state average. 

So it appears that the electric vehicle rebates were not issued based on regional air quality concerns or socio-economic standards.  Instead, if you could afford the zero-emission vehicle, you get a rebate.  California has now attempted to address the issue with a new law that placed income requirements on receiving the rebate.  

Today, households making less than $300,000 will still receive the rebate and the Carpool Lane sticker that allows zero-emission vehicles to use the carpool lanes.  The Californians in the top 5 percent, making more than $300,000 per household, must decide between the rebate and the Carpool lane sticker. 

This law change does not solve the problem.  Instead of subsidizing expensive electric vehicles, California should address air quality issues in the Central Valley.  Central Valley residents are not buying electric vehicles because the cars cost more than the annual household income. Instead, California needs to take a practical approach by providing incentives to all Central Valley residents to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles.  This will help drive down emissions, reduce air pollution in the Central Valley, and give back to disadvantaged communities.  Otherwise, the rich will only get richer, and the working class may need to look to another State for its Robin Hood.