On the Orange County coast, voters fume about gas prices but fear for climate’s future

When Amy Sibley heads to the Costco here from her home in nearby San Clemente, her best friend, Lisa Miller, tags along — to save gas money.

“I hitch a ride with her,” said Miller, 58, an unemployed business consultant, as the temperature in the black-tar parking lot topped 100 degrees. “If I put gas in my car, I can only put in five or six gallons at a time. It hurts when you have the minimum coming in and a lot of obligations. There’s only so much you can do — pay the bills or get in the car and drive around.”

Miller is a Republican who voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election; Sibley is a Democrat who voted for Joe Biden. Both say the cost of gas — and groceries and other goods — is top of mind as they decide how to vote in the November midterm election that will determine control of Congress.

“It’s not about one side or the other,” said Sibley, 54. “It’s about what’s best for the people here. People need to survive. A lot of people are barely making it.”

In this coastal congressional district — which could help determine which party controls the House — gas prices are a key consideration in the run-up to the election, according to interviews with voters and candidates.

The 49th Congressional District straddles Orange and San Diego counties, stretching from Laguna Beach to Del Mar and is home to Camp Pendleton, which has trained generations of Marines who have battled in the oil-rich Middle East. Here, filling up a tank on the way to work is part of the daily routine.

Though the district’s affluence cushioned some residents from high prices, the issue is part of a broader debate about the nation’s energy policy — the response to climate change, the stability of the power grid, imported energy, the role of renewables, nuclear, fracking and drilling.

Such issues have dominated recent headlines — fears of blackouts during blistering heat waves, California’s ban on sales of new gas-powered cars starting in 2035, and fines over a 2021 oil spill that closed beaches on the northern tip of the district. The coastal midpoint of the district is studded by the decommissioned domes of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, where radioactive spent fuel rods are buried indefinitely because there is no federal repository for such waste

California’s gas prices have long been higher than the rest of the nation because of state taxes and fees. UC Berkeley economist Severin Borenstein partially attributes the recent price increases to some refineries that make the special blend of fuel that meets the state’s environmental standards being taken offline for maintenance, as well as one having an unplanned outage.

“California uses about 40 million gallons of gasoline a day — about a gallon per person per day,” Borenstein said. “So adding an extra $2 per gallon means that’s an extra $2 per person per day for cost of living. For relatively affluent people, that’s half a trip to Starbucks. For less affluent people, and people who have to drive a lot, which tend to be more working-class people, that can be a significant burden.”

Borenstein noted that voters tend to blame those in power for such pocketbook issues, which have the potential to tilt congressional races.

“Obviously, whenever the price of gas goes up, any politician in power takes some blame for it, no matter how little power they have over it,” he said.

In the 49th District, where Democrats have a scant 2.9% voter registration edge and more than $6.5 million in television advertising has been reserved between now and election day, incumbent Democratic Rep. Mike Levin recognizes this dynamic.

“We are all feeling the pain of inflation. The difference is the other side doesn’t have any concrete solutions,” the environmental attorney told more than 60 seniors at a recent meet-and-greet in a gated Oceanside community.

“I encourage any of you to really try to talk to your Republican friends and neighbors about this issue here at Ocean Hills and say, ‘Well, OK, we can agree that this is a real problem,’” said Levin, who was first elected in 2018. “‘The cost of gas … the cost of groceries: too expensive. The cost of housing is still too high. But what are your concrete solutions?’”

Levin blamed high gas prices on “the three P’s”: the pandemic, Putin and price gouging. COVID-19 has caused supply chain problems, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted the global fuel market, and opportunistic oil companies inflated rates, he said in an interview after the reception.

“How we wean ourselves off of that is not to double down on the dirty-energy policies of the past. It’s not to spread misinformation or disinformation about the transition to cleaner energy, but it’s to actually embrace a more sustainable future,” said Levin, who voted for the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act and successfully fought for the inclusion of climate change investments in the infrastructure bill.

The first general-election ad aired by Levin highlighted his work to clean up radioactive waste at San Onofre. Levin, who started the bipartisan Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus, introduced legislation to prioritize the removal of such waste in areas with large populations and seismic risks; it was co-sponsored by a number of GOP members of Congress.

Levin supporters agree that energy policy is “a very complex global situation.”

“It’s not just an American problem. We’re responding to what’s happening in the world, with energy and with Russia in particular,” said Betsy Quinn, 71, a retired school principal who recently moved to the Oceanside senior community