SchwarzeneggerTexas oil companies are funding an attack on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s signature environmental accomplishment, the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act.Gov. Schwarzenegger’s OfficeBig Oil is nothing if not brazen, so while BP works to protect its tattered reputation in the Gulf, two Texas oil companies are on the attack in California. Their target is Assembly Bill 32, the most ambitious cap-and-trade climate plan in the nation, which was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in 2006 and is set to really kick into gear next year. Their weapon is a ballot initiative that would mothball the plan until state unemployment drops to below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters (from a current 12.6 percent), which would effectively kill the plan for the time being.

Last week, a group turned in 800,000 signatures in support of the initiative, ensuring it a place on state ballots in November. Texas refinery companies Tesoro and Valerog and private donors have poured more than $1 million into the campaign. Clean-air advocates worry that figure could reach $50 million by year’s end.

The group works under the name California Jobs Initiative, which is ironic given the threat it poses to jobs in the state’s growing cleantech industry. The clean-energy sector has noticed the threat, and it’s partnering with green groups and venture capital firms to build up its own war chest to defend the climate plan.

Schwarzeneger, for his part, has stuck to his guns: “We have to do everything we can to fight back and push back those greedy companies and make sure we protect our environmental laws,” he said last week.

Two ways this could play out:

Worst-case scenario: Defeat. A successful ballot initiative would be catastrophic, and not just for clean-energy workers in California. The fight is a symbolic proxy for the national battle over fossil-fuel pollution and climate legislation, and a victory for polluters in the nation’s most populous state would embolden them to try to repeal climate plans in other states.

“People see California as ground zero in this fight,” Ann Nothoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the L.A. Times. “Polluters will do anything to defeat climate legislation in Washington, D.C., even if it means using California as a pawn.”

Best-case scenario: A long, expensive distraction. Even if the measure fails six months from now, it still forces environmental groups to spend scarce money and attention on defending an existing law when they want to be proactively campaigning for more progress.

In this way it works the same as concerted attacks on climate science or climate action plans. Polluters don’t have to win public arguments over science or the best climate solutions. They just have to continue attacking, keeping the public confused and the media covering the “debate.” For them, the best defense is relentless series of attacks. Clean-energy advocates are stuck playing defense.

The silver lining: Cleantech gets tough. If there’s a bright side here, it’s that California’s politically inexperienced clean-energy companies and venture firms may learn to use their considerable funds and intellectual capital in the political arena. In February, cleantech executives traveled to Washington for a “fly-in” crash course on lobbying and media strategy. The attack on California’s climate plan could hammer home some of the same lessons on the need for businesses to engage with policy. Now Climatewire reports that cleantech firms and environmental groups are working to craft a unified response plan to the oil-company attacks. Both groups may emerge stronger from that partnership.