Gov. Jerry Brown, who championed environmental causes when he was governor before and made global warming a focus of his current administration, has been targeted in recent weeks by an increasingly vocal group of activists whose animosity would once have appeared improbable.
Environmentalists frustrated with Brown’s permissiveness of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have followed the Democratic governor to events throughout the state since September, heckling him for his approval of legislation establishing a permitting system for the controversial form of oil extraction.
The protests have become an awkward sideshow for the third-term governor, highlighting the deepening division between Brown and environmentalists – a reliably Democratic constituency – as he prepares for a re-election bid next year.
“The issue … here is about how Governor Brown wants to be remembered, and his history, and what his legacy is going to be in California,” said Victoria Kaplan, campaign director at MoveOn.org Civic Action. “Is he going to be remembered as the governor who backtracked on his commitment to addressing climate change?”
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Brown was hailed by environmentalists when he signed legislation in 2011 requiring California utilities to obtain more of their electricity from renewable sources. He has held up the state – and his administration – as a national model for environmental protection.
But Brown’s relationship with environmentalists has been strained by his effort to relax provisions of the state’s signature environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, and only worsened after his approval of the hydraulic fracturing bill this fall. The legislation, Senate Bill 4, by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, will require oil producers to notify people living near new wells, mandate groundwater monitoring and require more disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking.
Environmental groups said the measure was too lenient. They demanded a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, in which water and chemicals are injected underground to break up rock formations to access oil.
While chanting “Climate leaders don’t frack” outside Brown’s events, environmentalists last month released letters signed by prominent scientists and about two dozen former Brown advisers and administration staffers urging a moratorium. Twenty scientists, including professors from Stanford University and the University of California, warned Brown of “known environmental and health risks” of fracking, including increased carbon emissions and water and air pollution.
Oil industry representatives said fracking, used for decades in California, is safe, and Brown has rejected the call for a moratorium. He said at an event in San Francisco in October that the Pavley bill “will create the most comprehensive environmental analysis of fracking to date” and that “we ought to give science a chance.”
“This is a complicated equation,” Brown said, “and you can be sure that California is doing everything it can to reduce greenhouse gases and support a sustainable economy.”
While protests at Brown’s events remain relatively small, they are unusual for Brown and have managed to inconvenience him. When about 30 demonstrators outside the historic governor’s mansion began shouting at an event in Sacramento last month, staff members were compelled to move Brown’s podium farther from the street. The protesters are loud enough that Brown has paused during speeches to recognize them.
“I bring my friends with me,” Brown told an audience in Oakland. “What I say here now will be very brief so we don’t stimulate the eight-man chorus out there.”
While the protests are small, public concern about fracking is not insignificant. Fifty-eight percent of voters support establishing a moratorium on fracking until an independent commission studies its environmental effects, according to a USC/Los Angeles Times poll in June.
“It’s a growing grass-roots movement across the state,” said Rose Braz of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s not going to go away. It really is not until the governor acts to halt fracking.”
The demonstrations represent “a new phenomenon for Jerry Brown, given his deep roots in the environmental movement going back to his first tenure as governor,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
Yet Pitney said there is no political pressure on Brown to bend to the environmentalists’ concerns. If anything, the criticism may make Brown more appealing to moderate Democrats and independent voters, Pitney said.
“There are probably people out there who are thinking, ‘Well, if the environmentalist wackos are mad at him, he must be doing something right,’” Pitney said. “It feeds into the narrative of Jerry Brown as the wise adult staying the hand of the hard left.”
Brown has not yet said if he will run for re-election next year, but he is raising money and is widely expected to run. If he does, it is unclear whether environmentalists – even those protesting Brown – will find any other candidate more appealing.
One of Brown’s Republican challengers, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, released a campaign video last week filmed at an oil field in Bakersfield.
“We are sitting on an ocean of oil,” he says. “We ought to be drilling it and fracking it rather than importing it from our enemies.”
Dan Newman, a political spokesman for Brown, said in an email that Brown is “a world leader on climate change, renewable energy and electric vehicles – so environmentalists wouldn’t have a tough time deciding between him and Republicans whose mantra is ‘drill baby drill.’”
Brown has enjoyed a relatively favorable relationship with California’s oil industry since taking office. Exxon Mobil Corp. and Occidental Petroleum Corp. have donated to his re-election campaign this year.
Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, called the environmentalists’ protests “indicative of the kind of ideological orthodoxy that seems to have taken over this issue.”
The industry group posted a response on its website to the letter Brown received from scientists urging a moratorium. The scientists’ argument, the oil association said, “ignores the reality that our economy, our comforts and conveniences, our security, indeed our very lifestyles depend on an abundant and reliable supply of petroleum energy.”