By Chris Megerian and Melanie Mason
September 12, 2015

One of Gov. Jerry Brown’s most ambitious environmental goals was hanging in the balance when two powerful California lawmakers met for dinner near the Capitol.

Pushing the governor’s proposal to slash gasoline use on state roads was Senate leader Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles. Sitting across from him was Assemblyman Henry Perea, the Fresno leader of business-friendly Democrats fighting the plan.

If the two could make a deal, the controversial legislation might be saved despite fierce opposition from the oil industry. They hit on a potential compromise that would limit new state regulations, ending dinner with an agreement to keep working.

“I thought there was a real possibility,” De León said.

But the next day, things fell apart, and the bid to cut gas consumption was stripped from the bill. At a time when Brown likes to say the eyes of the world are on California, the leaders conceded a major environmental fight a few months before they will attend the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris.

Brown and De León blamed the oil companies, describing their warnings about gas rationing and high pump prices as a “smoke screen.” That was far from the only hurdle, however, according to lawmakers and staff members.

The measure’s supporters were also unable to counter industry assertions that the bill would hand too much authority to state regulators — a message that resonated with a new generation of lawmakers eager to shift more Capitol power in their direction. Meanwhile, the governor carefully guarded his administration’s wide authority to pursue aggressive climate-related goals without interference from the Legislature.

In the end, it wasn’t doubts about the global dangers of climate change that scuttled the gasoline target, but questions of who would get to pull the strings in Sacramento.

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