[BenIndy Contributor Kathy Kerridge – Californians like to think of themselves as climate forward, and Governor Gavin Newsom certainly projects that image. However, there is often a gap between rhetoric and action. Last year, as part of the governor’s climate proposals, the legislature enacted setbacks so oil drilling — with all its health risks — could not happen in your backyard, next to your child’s school or near health facilities. The oil industry then qualified an initiative to overturn that effort (often positioning their bill as “pro-setback” to the people who signed) and CalGEM has continued busily granting permits for drilling in within setback zones. So why doesn’t Newsom back up his rhetoric? This op-ed from the director of Sierra Club California, published by the LA Times, does a good job of explaining how Gov. Newsom might turn rhetoric into action. – K.K.]
By Brendan Dawson, first published in the LA Times on April 7, 2023.
California politicians promise to protect the environment a lot more than they actually do. For environmental advocates like me, reconciling a politician’s public statements on environmental issues with their actions doesn’t take much time: Simply put, there is no reconciling them.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stance on oil and gas is no exception. Late last year, the governor called for a special legislative session to hold oil and gas companies accountable for gouging California consumers when gasoline prices spiked last fall by imposing a penalty on excess profits. The bill that came out of the session in March fell short of the governor’s goals, settling for requiring more industry transparency.
Environmental groups, including Sierra Club California, nevertheless supported the measure as a step toward regulating an industry that was hurting the working class and overheating the planet at the same time. Newsom himself announced “a new sheriff in town” and claimed to have “brought Big Oil to their knees.”
And yet his administration continues to capitulate to the oil industry in other important ways. Newsom’s public determination to take on this industry differs significantly from what goes on behind closed doors.
For instance, after the fossil fuel industry used the state’s referendum process to stall a critical law banning new or reworked oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, parks and healthcare facilities, the governor decried the move. He said in a statement that he was proud to have signed the setback measure, Senate Bill 1137, “to stop new oil drilling in our neighborhoods and protect California families.”
Since Newsom’s statement, however, his administration’s oil agency, the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, has approved hundreds of permits to rework existing oil and gas wells and continue dangerous operations within setback zones. CalGEM has approved a total of 897 permits since the beginning of the year, 62% of which are within the zones that would be protected by SB 1137.
Reworking of existing wells is a significant source of pollution that puts communities at elevated risk of asthma, cancer and other illnesses. Environmental justice advocates fought for decades to secure setbacks from these operations, only to see CalGEM continue to rubber-stamp permits while the governor stood by.
Newsom is obviously aware of the fossil fuel industry’s repercussions for California communities and the environment. Other departments in his administration have taken steps to advance clean air, and Newsom publicly champions them. But CalGEM, the agency charged with “protecting public health, safety, and the environment in its oversight of the oil, natural gas, and geothermal industries,” clearly missed the memo.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the recently released final part of its sixth assessment of the global climate, calls for cutting two-thirds of global carbon pollution by 2035 and ending reliance on oil and gas by 2040. In the report, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres says we must “massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.” For California to do our part to meet these demands, Newsom must align his administration’s actions with his public statements.
There are a few more concrete steps Newsom can take toward that end. First, he can direct CalGEM to stop issuing new and rework permits, prioritizing the rescinding of permits within the setback zone that would be established by SB 1137.
He should also organize a government-wide effort to plan California’s transition from oil and gas to clean, renewable energy. This transition must consider the needs of the communities that will be most affected by the transition, especially those that consist of predominantly low-income households and people of color.
Finally, he must hold the oil industry accountable for cleaning up abandoned oil wells. Thousands of wells across the state have been abandoned by the industry, and the often exorbitant cleanup costs are wrongly falling on California taxpayers. CalGEM recently spent more than $34 million in taxpayer money to clean up 171 oil wells in Santa Barbara’s Cat Canyon alone.
These steps are practical and immediately achievable. If Newsom wants to live up to his reputation as a champion for the climate and an opponent of Big Oil, he must do more than just promise to protect our environment and health.
Brandon Dawson is the director of Sierra Club California.