When Gov. Jerry Brown signed a pair of bills last weekend that aim to block an expansion of oil drilling in federal waters off the coast of California, he proclaimed it a message to President Donald Trump that the state would “not let the federal government pillage public lands and destroy our treasured coast.”
For some environmental activists, it was a hollow promise from a governor whose administration has approved more than 200 new wells in state waters, and more than 23,000 oil and gas drilling permits overall, since he returned to the office nearly eight years ago.
Coming to the end of a historic fourth term as California governor, Brown has been engaged in a flurry of activity to cement the crusade against climate change that has dominated his political agenda. But critics contend he has left a gaping hole in his environmental record: a refusal to curb California production of oil, whose consumption in the transportation sector is a leading cause of the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet’s temperature.
They are planning major demonstrations this week at a San Francisco summit hosted by Brown to galvanize regional and corporate responses to climate change where national governments won’t act.
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“He has not put a single limit on oil drilling in the state. It’s literally drill, baby, drill,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a longtime antagonist of Brown on energy issues.
Court said Brown’s focus on tackling a global problem, setting emissions and renewable energy targets the state will not likely reach until after he is dead, smacks of hypocrisy when local pollution from oil drilling and refineries has health consequences for millions of Californians right now.
“Brown has a very old-white-guy, ivory-tower approach to climate change,” Court said. “It’s really convenient to be a climate change reformer when it doesn’t cost you anything today or in the near future.”
A spokesman for Brown disputed that portrayal. In an email, Evan Westrup said Brown and his regulatory agencies remain committed to finding ways to cut California’s petroleum consumption by half.
Westrup said Brown has also instituted numerous changes to increase the environmental and public health safety of oil and gas operations, including signing legislation last year to improve air quality monitoring of refineries, while overseeing a drastic decline in well permit approvals in the past two years that coincided with a decline in state oil production.
“Charting a real path forward requires much more than slogans and PR campaigns — and California has among the most thoughtful and integrated approaches in the world to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels,” Westrup wrote.
There’s no denying that Brown has a long and accomplished history of environmental policy, dating back to his first two terms as governor from 1975 to 1983.
In recent years, he supported legislation to ratchet down California’s greenhouse gas emissions in the decades ahead. Just this week, he signed a bill to put the state on the path to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045, while simultaneously announcing an executive order directing California to achieve carbon neutrality in same time frame.
But tensions with environmentalists began to mount less than a year into his return to the governor’s office.
In November 2011, Brown fired two top oil and gas regulators for taking too long to review permit applications for new drilling projects. He was under immense pressure from the oil industry — including his former chief of staff and Gov. Gray Davis, then an attorney for Occidental Petroleum — to speed up permitting, despite warnings from the regulators that relaxing the review process would violate state and federal law. Months after their dismissal, Brown publicly boasted that drilling permits were up by 18 percent.
Then in 2013, Brown approved a bill permitting the controversial oil extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The measure was touted as creating the toughest regulations in the country, including strengthening groundwater monitoring and requiring companies to share more information about the chemical mixture they blast underground as part of the drilling process.
Environmental groups and some scientists, warning of what they said were “known environmental and health risks” of fracking, had sought a moratorium. They later criticized Brown for ignoring a follow-up report, also commissioned by the bill, that confirmed significant potential impacts to greenhouse gas emissions, air quality and public safety.
Protestors have dogged Brown ever since, showing up to the governor’s mansion and the California Democratic Party convention to dispute his environmental bona fides. At an international climate change conference in Germany last fall, they interrupted a speech by Brown and chanted at him to “keep it in the ground.”
“Let me put in in perspective, folks,” Brown responded. “If I could turn off the oil today, 32 million vehicles would stop and 10 million jobs would be destroyed overnight. And that’s not going to stop.”
Westrup shared an op-ed from a UC Berkeley professor making the case that it’s better to break Californians’ dependence on oil than to curb production, which would drive up prices for consumers and profits for foreign producers.
V. John White, a veteran environmental lobbyist who is now the director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, said the “power of the oil industry is a political reality in California.”
While acknowledging the governor’s mixed record on oil, he gave Brown credit for fending off challenges to California’s low-carbon fuel standard and for pushing to get more electric vehicles on the road. White said it is not an easy task in a state so reliant on cars and gasoline.
“California is a bit schizophrenic about its oil. We are caught between where we want to go and where we are,” White said. “You’ve got to choose your battles carefully.”
Brown’s strongest opponents see that caution as deference.
They say he didn’t fight for a deal that might have salvaged a 2015 effort to require a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use in motor vehicles. Brown and other proponents, facing massive resistance from the oil industry and their legislative allies, ultimately dropped that provision from a larger bill boosting renewable electricity and energy efficiency targets.
And some environmental groups turned against Brown’s successful push last year to renew California’s cap-and-trade program, which aims to limit carbon emissions, after he agreed to block state and local regulators from imposing additional restrictions on refineries, a compromise to appease the oil industry.
“Any realistic view of the future includes our industry, our innovative employees, and the products we provide that power the state,” Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, a trade group for oil companies, said in a statement. “We look forward to a seat at the table for this important discussion.”
Court noted that Brown’s father was involved in the import of Indonesian oil to California in the mid-20th century, a source of wealth for their family, and his organization has documented substantial contributions from oil and energy companies to Brown’s campaigns, ballot initiatives and two charter schools he founded in Oakland.
Consumer Watchdog filed a complaint with the state’s political ethics commission in 2016, alleging that the California Democratic Party funneled millions of dollars in donations from the industry to Brown. In one instance from the report, the group said Chevron donated $350,000 to the Democratic Party in December 2013, and the party gave Brown $300,000 a week later. Then in early January, the report said, Brown came out against an oil severance tax that Chevron had long opposed.
The commission did not ultimately uphold those allegations. Westrup wrote, “Thousands of Californians – individuals, unions, businesses and others – have made contributions, large and small, to Governor Brown over the years. The governor’s focus is doing what’s best for California.”
With less than four months before Brown terms out, activists are gathering at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this week as the culmination of a campaign called Brown’s Last Chance, urging the governor to commit to a plan for phasing out fossil fuel extraction in California. Among their demands is to create a half-mile buffer zone for drilling around home, schools and hospitals, which would shut down thousands of oil and gas wells in the state.
“The first thing to do when you’re in a hole is stop digging,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “California is viewed as a model of climate policy for the rest of the country, the rest of the world, and it has to be a model that works.”