Calif. Sen. Padilla on climate, wildfires, solar and clean school buses

A Q&A with California’s junior senator on his proposals to modernize FEMA, electrify buses and help low-income Americans access clean energy.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) at a press conference at the Port of Long Beach in November 2021 (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Alex Padilla has served as a United States senator from California since the beginning of 2021, when he was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom (D) to take the place of then-senator and now Vice President Kamala Harris. Since taking office, Padilla has introduced bills to improve wildfire response, electrify school bus fleets and strengthen the electrical grid against climate disasters. He has also supported legislation to expand access to solar for lower-income Americans. 

Padilla recently discussed his work addressing climate change and other challenges during an interview on the Political Climate podcast with hosts Julia Pyper, Brandon Hurlbut and Shane Skelton. Here are edited and condensed highlights from the interview. You can listen to the complete conversation on the latest episode of Political Climate.

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Julia Pyper: You have introduced a bill called the FIRE Act, which would revise the way FEMA works in response to wildfires. Could you tell us about it and other bills you introduced in your first year?

Sen. Alex Padilla: We actually just had a unanimous, bipartisan committee vote on the FIRE Act, which I am very excited about. It would essentially bring FEMA into modern times. Being an agency that has been around for a long time, they’ve gotten good at responding to hurricanes, floods and tornadoes by pre-positioning resources in advance of those disasters. But they haven’t done the same when it comes to wildfires. Look at the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires in the West — we know that it’s sadly the new normal because of climate change. So this bill would bring FEMA guidelines, criteria, processes and procedures up to speed in a way that better reflects the threat of wildfires. 

Also, one of the first bills I introduced was to leverage federal resources to help school districts transition away from diesel school buses to zero-emissions electric buses. I approached it not just as a legislator, but also as a proud product of the Los Angeles Unified School District with memories of riding a school bus when I was in elementary school. I can still tell you what that diesel exhaust smells like. More than 90% of bus fleets in America are school bus fleets, and more than 90% of those buses are diesel. When you retire diesel school buses and replace them with zero-emissions buses, it’s obviously better for the environment, but it’s also better for public health. And it’s better for children’s educational attainment levels because healthier children learn better. 

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Pyper: You have also worked on legislation pertaining to the Salton Sea, an area in California that is rich in minerals.

Sen. Padilla: Those of us deep in the climate discussion and the renewable energy discussion know that there are some unique and precious minerals that are necessary for clean technologies, and some of those are abundant in the Salton Sea. So being able to utilize those resources is a win-win — good for the climate, good for job creation and economic development opportunities in a part of our state that can absolutely use that.

Shane Skelton: We’re going to need certain commodities to decarbonize every sector of our economy. There will be an increased demand for and adoption of clean energy technologies. Those require materials and minerals which we have at times been unwilling to mine and produce in the U.S., so we have become reliant on China and other supply chains. How are you thinking about that moving forward?

Sen. Padilla: As with a lot of the most important public policy, it’s complex, right? We can’t have the climate discussion in isolation. The supply chain and domestic manufacturing are hugely important to that as well. You can have a very similar conversation when it comes to semiconductors, for example, which most people don’t think about but are in our phones and our computers, the televisions that we watch, the cars that we drive. So domestic manufacturing capability is an economic-development and job-creation opportunity as well as a national security strategy. Especially in California, we also have environmental protections to balance with that, whether it’s a mining operation, a manufacturing facility, or any other area of the supply chain, so nothing is simple. But I think it is important to increase that domestic capacity for a number of reasons.

Pyper: You signed on to a piece of legislation introduced by Senator Jon Ossoff [D-Georgia] called the Clean Energy for All Homes Act. [Editor’s note: The bill would provide tax incentives to help middle-class and lower-income families install rooftop solar and other energy-efficient technologies in their homes.]

Sen. Padilla: Let me underscore why it’s so important. I’m encouraged that the term equity” is being used so much in the Biden-Harris administration. There are conversations about equity in health care, equity in education, equity in environmental protection — and just access to solar should be no exception. Lower-income communities have just as much at stake when it comes to air quality and climate change as anybody else. But sometimes our incentive programs or subsidy programs are not geared toward ensuring their participation and inclusion. So for me, it was a no-brainer to sign onto the bill.

Skelton: The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act did go through the Senate and become law in a bipartisan way. As a first-term senator, what did you think of that process being successful in its bipartisanship? And what do you think about the climate and clean energy provisions that were included in it?

Sen. Padilla: 2021 was my first year in the United States Senate representing California. And to think that despite the tense environment I came into, with Covid-19 and the Capitol insurrection, my time here began with weighing in and helping pass the American Rescue Plan and all that did from a Covid-response standpoint. And of course, the year ended with the president signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which I also had a chance to work on. 

The very first bipartisan bill I introduced was known as the Power On Act. Last February, you may recall, ice storms devastated Texas and took out their electrical grid with devastating consequences. I saw that as an opportunity and I approached Senator [John] Cornyn [R] from Texas and kind of opened the conversation like this: I see what’s happening in Texas; it’s only a matter of time before the electrical grid in California is being jeopardized not by ice storms but by wildfires. Climate change is real; we’re seeing real impacts of it. We can leverage federal resources and policy to work with states and utilities to improve the reliability and resiliency of the electrical grid. When we modernize the grid and make it more efficient, we can also reduce emissions and make it a part of a climate strategy. We introduced that bill seeking a billion dollars, and it was so popular on both sides of the aisle that it was included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, not for $1 billion but for $5 billion, and that got signed into law by the president. 

Skelton: Do you envision the Senate being a place where there is a lot of bipartisan collegiality or are you concerned that that’s not the direction we’re heading in?

Sen. Padilla: If you look at my career in public service — from my days on the Los Angeles City Council, my time in the California state legislature, even as the California secretary of state — I’m more than happy to work on a bipartisan basis to get good things done. But I do fear that the times we’re living in are very partisan, very divisive. So that means it’s not always easy to work on a bipartisan basis to get things done. We’ve always got to try, but balance that with the urgency of so many of these issues. 

If you believe climate change truly is an existential threat, then you have to act with that urgency. I don’t see that necessarily on a bipartisan basis. To think that we can’t even set up an independent bipartisan commission to investigate what happened on January 6 — the deadly insurrection of last year that was fueled on the premise of the big lie” — is beyond sad; it’s truly dangerous. So we have a lot of work to do to create more breathing room for bipartisan work on real issues and challenges.

Brandon Hurlbut: Senator Joe Manchin [D-West Virginia] is saying that Build Back Better is dead, while the White House is saying there are still conversations going on with the Senate. What’s your take? 

Sen. Padilla: We don’t give up that easily. That’s my take. The whole world seems to love to quote Joe Manchin on any given day at any given hour. So when he says Build Back Better is dead, maybe the exact version that he last took a look at is, but in my conversations with him and so many others, there’s so much in the Build Back Better proposal that is not just important, it’s urgent — some of the climate change proposals, the childcare proposals, health care investments, immigration reform. So we’re going to continue to work at it, and whether it takes on a new name or becomes a two- or three-bill package, I am confident that we’re going to make some significant progress in the near future.

Pyper: What are the pieces that could be put together to make this happen? How would it work functionally given that this is happening under budget reconciliation and there are certain rules you have to operate under?

Sen. Padilla: The budget reconciliation process is a unique opportunity to be able to move a bill, and a comprehensive one I would hope, on a majority-vote basis. If we take some of my Republican colleagues at their word, there’s bipartisan support for some elements of what’s in the Build Back Better agenda. So if they want to bring votes and get some childcare investment done on a bipartisan basis, they can bring it up. If they want to get some education investments going on a bipartisan basis, then bring it on. That’s why the negotiations continue. So I think the most honest thing we can tell the public is that Build Back Better is not dead; it continues to be negotiated. 

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Listen to Political Climate to hear the full conversation. Political Climate is a biweekly podcast about the most pressing energy and climate issues of our time, hosted by Julia Pyper, Brandon Hurlbut and Shane Skelton. You can listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get podcasts. Follow the show on Twitter at @Poli_Climate. Political Climate is presented by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute and Canary Media.