“E-buses”: A new source of infighting within California’s progressive coalition?

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California has long been at the forefront of efforts to shift towards greener energy production and greener energy consumption.

But as the state drives forward towards bringing more electric vehicles on the road (pun intended), a rift is beginning to emerge between different progressive camps in the state. Witness the recently announced lawsuit from The Two Hundred, a coalition of prominent civil rights leaders in the state, against the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which has been pushing grants for electric buses, or “e-buses,” in Oakland and elsewhere.

In the lawsuit, The Two Hundred argues that California’s “green energy” policies are effectively racist by driving up housing costs and driving away jobs through onerous regulation:

“California’s climate policies guarantee that housing, transportation and electricity prices will continue to rise, while ‘gateway’ jobs to the middle class for those without college degrees, such as manufacturing and logistics, will continue to locate in other states.”

And there’s another problem with the buses where civil rights and minority groups are concerned, too. Minorities disproportionately rely on public transportation, namely buses, to get around. And it turns out that a whole slew of electric buses that California leaders have been signing up to bring into cities… don’t actually work.

Great as Gov. Jerry Brown may be, he’s been a proponent of “e-buses.” So has Los Angeles Mayor and Democratic presidential hopeful Eric Garcetti. So have local officials in Oakland, who also are using $9 million in taxpayer money for Oakland to buy electric trucks for private companies.

All of them have ramped up subsidies for pricey electric buses, mainly supplied by a Chinese company BYD– whose  electric buses have a history of breaking down everywhere from Los Angeles to Columbia, Mo. to and Albuquerque.

When you’re a poor Angeleno who cannot afford a car who is trying to commute to your job on the other side of LA, you are completely reliant on public transportation to get you there. If you are reliant on a bus, and it’s a BYD “e-bus,” guess what? You may not make it. This is another reason why members of the progressive coalition in California are not completely sold on the e-buses, even if wealthier, environmentalist factions love the concept.

Then there are the implications of reliance on e-buses, in terms of labor conditions abroad. Some progressives are uncomfortable with relying on a Chinese company, BYD, so heavily for e-buses given China’s rampant human rights violations including quasi-slave labor in the manufacturing sector.

There’s also the inconvenient truth that the cobalt and lithium mining that electric buses depend on for their batteries rely heavily on child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and have leaked dangerous chemicals, like hydrochloric acid, into drinking water. And, of course, electric buses require a ton of electric power, which some less e-vehicle enthusiastic environmentalists say strains California’s existing power grid and contributes to rampant wildfires.

There is also some concern within the labor community that CARB isn’t always backing companies and schemes that treat workers well. Back in 2012, The US Labor Department sued Shippers Transport Express , which is backed by CARB, for underpaying its employees, many of whom appear to be minorities. The company acknowledged it had indeed mistreated them and agreed to pay back the withheld wages. And now, four workers are currently suing SSA Marine , also backed by CARB, for operating a racially discriminatory work environment.

Nationwide, there are obviously other fights playing out that pit wealthier, environmentalist factions of the progressive coalition against poorer, often minority, and labor-aligned segments. But in California, it appears that a major fight within the left may end up being over electric buses– and with Garcetti and figures like Tom Steyer likely to run for President, the friction may get a lot more public attention than anyone ever expected.

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