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Orange County Register: Rep. Katie Porter talks environment at Costa Mesa town hall

Rep. Katie Porter talks environment at Costa Mesa town hall

Rep. Katie Porter’s first in-person town hall of 2023 was all about the environment.

The event came a few months after local watchdog group Climate Action Campaign found that Orange County is the largest county by population in California that hasn’t committed to a comprehensive climate action plan.

Furthermore, the level of concern for climate change is among the lowest in Orange County compared to other major regions, according to a July statewide survey on the environment by the Public Policy Institute of California.

But the 90 or so people who packed the spacious meeting room at the Norma Hertzog Community Center in Costa Mesa Thursday evening, Aug. 3, appeared motivated to address climate change, posing sharp questions to Porter during the hour-long town hall.

Among the crowd was Irvine resident Colleen McCarty, a rising senior majoring in environmental and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin.

“Just like everyone else in my generation, I can feel the effects of climate change more and it’s definitely a lot of eco-anxiety,” said McCarty. “But I also work in the clean energy industry so I wanted to hear how legislative efforts are actually working out in our communities.”

Porter said oversight is essential to ensuring legislation is working in communities, “closing the gap between what the law says versus what happens on the ground.”

Porter, who sits on the House Committees on Natural Resources and Oversight and Accountability, pointed to federal plans to revise the Bureau of Land Management’s oil and gas leasing regulations to raise the amount companies are mandated to pay in cleanup costs after drilling is done. The regulations need to be updated, she said, but work needs to be done to ensure taxpayers aren’t “on the hook” for most of these cleanup costs.

She also says legislators should go out to sites to see firsthand what is happening.

“You can’t do effective oversight from the dais,” she said.

Questions from the audience covered a wide range of topics, including housing, public transit, the farm bill, support for state parks and water storage.

When asked whether she supports Rep. Robert Garcia’s People Over Parking Act — an effort to eliminate minimum parking requirements for new affordable housing, commercial or retail construction and encourage transit ridership to reduce emissions — Porter said it is a “hugely important thing.”

“We have to think about parking as a shared resource among a community. Communities will solve this problem differently, but we should not let parking come before housing. Housing has to come first, and parking has to be part of the conversation,” Porter said.

Kian Babayi, a recent college graduate living in Irvine, said Porter’s town hall was particularly relevant because he used to commute for work between Irvine and Long Beach.

“Environmental issues are quite important to me because within my lifetime, I could be feeling the negative effects of climate change,” Babayi said. “In particular, I for one, despise commuting and the negative repercussions of it — pollution, smog and all that.”

Porter also emphasized the importance of kids’ perspectives on climate change. A single mother of three, Porter said their viewpoints are an important reminder for her.

“My oldest had a sign on his door for many years that read, ‘Zero fossil fuels in 2030 or else don’t enter, that means you mom’ and when my daughter, now 11, was younger, I asked her what climate change means to her, and she said, ‘We’re all gonna burn,’” Porter said. “There’s a real concern among kids about climate change, and we need more multigenerational leadership.”

Fifty to 60% of letters she receives from kids are about climate change, plastics, endangered species and pollution, Porter said.

Another concern brought up during the hour-long town hall was water access.

“Water storage is the lower-hanging fruit in the water universe,” Porter said. “We have to make sure we are making big investments in recycling water and storing rainwater and groundwater. The challenge in California is that most of the water infrastructure was built in the ’60s.”

When it comes to protecting state parks’ resources and preventing them from being overrun, Porter says she wants to see President Joe Biden accelerate his “30 by 30” conservation plan, which has a goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands, freshwater and ocean areas by 2030.

“We’re lucky in Orange County to have a lot of natural, open space,” Porter said. “I want to push President Biden in rolling out regulations that put funding and resources behind states and municipalities, particularly low-income municipalities.”

A great example of a victory for an Orange County regional asset is the preservation of Banning Ranch, Porter said.

While the town hall largely focused on how climate change is negatively impacting the community, Porter closed the event on a more positive note. We do have the science, Porter said, to get us out of the climate crisis.

“This is going to be the major driver of job growth and economic opportunity,” Porter said. “But we are going to have hardships because we have waited too long and done too little.”