Will California's Dirty Oil Business Soil Governor Jerry Brown's Climate Legacy?

This story was co-published with Capital & Main

In his two most recent terms as governor, which began in January 2011, Jerry Brown has signed legislation to increase renewable energy standards for utilities, to establish California’s first groundwater regulations and to require state public pension funds to divest from coal. To the country and the world, he’s a climate firebrand. He has stepped into the climate fray ahead of presidents, mayors and other governors; he has traveled to China, the Vatican and Russia to address crowds about the subject. Under his leadership, California joined with the German state of Baden-Württemberg to found the Under2Coalition, a partnership among local governments and nations to keep global temperature rise from ever exceeding 2 degrees Celsius.

But there’s something hinky about Brown’s climate leadership, an inconsistency that environmentalists caution will threaten his legacy. To wit, while Brown warns often in speeches that one-third of the world’s oil reserves must remain untouched to avert climate catastrophe, the governor has not done much to keep California’s reserves in the ground. To the contrary: In 2011 Brown flagrantly axed two state regulators for holding drillers to account for their environmental infractions. In 2013, he inserted last-minute amendments into a bill to regulate hydraulic fracturing and acidizing — dissolving rock with toxic chemicals to access trapped oil. And while he managed to extend California’s greenhouse-gas trading market, cap-and-trade, as far out as 2030, he did so in collaboration with oil lobbyists, who saw many of their demands included in the bill.

When RL Miller, chair of the Democratic Party’s environmental caucus, pointed this out, circulating a petition “telling Brown to stop being Chevron’s stenographer,” Brown accused her and her cohort of "political terrorism."

“He talks a good game,” says Miller, who also runs the advocacy nonprofit, Climate Hawks Vote. “But when you look at what you need to do on climate — move the electricity over to 100 percent renewable energy, for instance — he is silent.” He has not, in other words, come out in full support of state Senate Bill 100, the 100 percent renewable energy bill currently facing its last hurdle before making it to the governor’s desk: passage in the Assembly.

That Brown’s actions sometimes conflict with his climate credentials isn’t much discussed outside of California. But environmentalists like Miller, plus a wide phalanx of elected officials, national environmental leaders and public interest groups, are trying to change that in the waning days of the governor’s last term. They hope their “Brown's Last Chance” campaign will pressure the legacy-conscious politician to rein in the oil industry before his time is up in January. They have two specific demands: Stop approving permits for new wells in the state, and declare a phase-out of oil and gas production, with funding for workers to transition into the clean-energy economy — they want both to happen before September 12, when Brown welcomes governments, investors, environmentalists and concerned citizens at the three-day Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

Such actions would only be in keeping with Brown’s legislative accomplishments, says Bill McKibben, author and founder of the climate nonprofit, 350.org. “He clearly was a climate leader in the early stages of the fight, and that can’t be denied,” McKibben wrote in an email to Capital & Main“California has moved to cut energy demand and build renewables, and he’s been a part of that. The question is now whether he has the moxie left to embrace the climate movement as it has evolved.” That evolution has included embracing environmental justice. More than three-quarters of new oil wells approved on Brown’s watch are in low-income communities and communities of color, according to an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Permitting more oil wells next to people of color,” McKibben says, “is not what a climate leader for this day and age would do.”

Oil wells in California are not granted permits through the state alone. Local agencies participate in the process, as does the federal government. Drillers have to follow a suite of regulations that differ by proximity to aquifers, residential areas and land ownership. Does Brown really have the authority to unilaterally deny an oil company permission to drill on all California lands?

GettyImages-474387620 Will dirty oil soil Jerry Brown's climate legacy? Workers clean oil from the beach at Refugio State Beach on May 22, 2015 in Goleta, California. Governor Brown declared a State of Emergency after over 100,000 gallons of oil spilled from an abandoned pipeline on the land near Refugio State Beach, spreading over about nine miles of beach within hours. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, insists that he does. “We’re asking the governor to do things precisely because he has the power to do them,” she says. “[His] administration has issued new permits for 20,000 new wells since 2011. Each of those wells was [at] the discretion of state regulators. They report to the governor, and the governor has to follow the law.” If the state looks at all the risks the well poses and the harm it might cause, pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act, it can decide to reject a permit.

Instead, Siegel says, the state agency in charge of reviewing oil-drilling permits, the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) “rubber-stamps every permit that comes to them from the oil industry,” when closer analysis would reveal them as environmental law-breakers. “It’s actually not only within the governor’s discretion. It’s his obligation to tell those regulators to follow the law.”

In response to the accusation of “rubber-stamping,” DOGGR spokesman Don Drysdale says that “California has some of the most comprehensive and rigorous laws and regulations for oil and gas production in the world.” The Department of Conservation, DOGGR’s parent agency, “has significantly increased its oversight of the industry to safeguard the environment and the public.”

But that’s still at odds with fast action on climate, Siegel says. “There’s no way that any new fossil-fuel development can be compatible with a safe climate.”

Oil is a $111 billion industry in California. Though only 2.7 percent of the state’s GDP, its political muscle is legendary. The industry’s trade group, the Western States Petroleum Association, spends millions annually on lobbying the legislature, more than any other group in the state. Individual companies — Aera Energy and Chevron in particular — add in more.

Brown has said many times that California — which burns more oil than any other state save Texas — still imports 70 percent of its oil. If California stops producing oil, he’s argued, other states and countries will produce more to make up the difference. That’s true, according to the Stockholm Environmental Institute, which last February released a report analyzing the climate effects of California’s petroleum industry. “For each barrel of California oil [left in the ground],” an additional 0.4 to 0.8 barrels would be produced elsewhere,” say the study’s authors. At the same time, however, their research shows oil prices would rise, and global consumption would therefore decline by an estimated 0.2 to 0.6 barrels for each barrel not produced.

California continues to export refining byproducts of the state’s particularly heavy, dirty oil, including petroleum coke, a carbon-heavy solid that burns even dirtier than coal. Certain century-old, played-out wells in the San Joaquin Valley yield some of the most carbon-intensive oil in the world — by some analyses, it’s second only to Canadian oil sands in its climate footprint. Refining it into combustible fuel produces a lot of pet coke, which is shipped to other countries, mostly to be used as fuel.

“It’s literally the Koch brothers exporting pet coke from Long Beach,” Siegel says. Two Koch-run companies, Koch Carbon and Oxbow Carbon, operate terminals at the Long Beach port almost exclusively for the export of pet coke and coal. That might soon change, however: India, which until recently imported more pet coke than any other country, on August 17 announced a ban on burning the substance for fuel, citing air pollution concerns.

Perhaps India’s move could move Brown to reconsider oil’s prospects. “California’s climate policy will be the blueprint for the next Democratic president and the world over,” Siegel says, including many aspirationally “green” nations — Canada and Norway, for example — that have extensive oil supplies. “We have to make it a blueprint that actually solves the climate problem.”

And that blueprint cannot include oil. Most climatologists agree that there’s more carbon in already-producing fields to push the world past the warming threshold of 1.5 degrees. At that point, climate catastrophe may be irreversible.

The governor’s office has so far remained mum on the Brown’s Last Chance campaign. But Siegel is “hopeful,” she says, “that the governor will take action. There’s still time.”

Update, 8/31: After this article was published, Governor Brown's office gave Newsweek this statement:

Clearly, the world needs to curb its use of oil and the phase out is already underway in California where the state is committed to cutting consumption in half. At the same time, oil production in California has dropped 56 percent. There’s a reason the White House and fossil fuel companies fight California on almost a daily basis—no jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere is doing more on climate.

Join the Discussion