California needs real climate leadership. Here’s how Gov. Newsom can step up

Last week, two public watchdog groups revealed that the state agency in charge of regulating California’s oil and gas industry is rife with conflicts of interest. While the incoming administration was still learning the ropes in Sacramento, agency employees quietly doubled the rate of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) permits issued to oil companies. It turns out that several of those employees have investments in the same oil companies they are supposed to regulate.

In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom took swift and decisive action, firing the head of the agency and vowing to appoint a replacement who shares his opposition to fracking. That’s a good start. But the governor should – and legally can – do more to speed California’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

After decades of conventional oil production in southern and central California, the easy-to-get oil is long gone. What’s left tends to be the heaviest, dirtiest and hardest to extract. The industry increasingly is turning to fracking and other “well stimulation” techniques as a way to suck every last drop of oil out of the ground.

Fracking involves the high-pressure injection of water and toxic chemicals to crack open rock and release oil or natural gas. As communities across the country have learned the hard way, fracking can pollute the air, contaminate drinking water, trigger earthquakes and fragment wildlife habitat.


California’s unique geology and demographics magnify these risks. An independent scientific assessment commissioned by the state concluded in 2015 that the “shallow fracking” which occurs in three-quarters of California’s fracked oil wells poses an “inherent risk” to precious underground drinking water sources.

Oil and gas extraction activity in California is regulated at the state level by the Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) – the agency at the center of the permit controversy. DOGGR is part of the California Department of Conservation, whose overarching mission is to foster “intelligent, sustainable, and efficient use of California’s energy, land, and mineral resources” to ensure a “safe, sustainable environment for all Californians.”

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Corporate Environment at Pure Storage Josh Edelson
Legislature charged DOGGR

The new oil regulator’s first order of business should be to stop issuing new fracking permits in California. Several other states and nations have done just that. As someone who has studied and litigated these issues, I know that nothing in the law gives the industry a right to obtain new approvals for ever-riskier activities or to extend production by drilling more wells. DOGGR’s existing legal authority allows the governor to just say “no” to fracking and new extraction wells.

But to truly protect our climate, Newsom must do even more. As he cleans house at DOGGR, the governor should direct his replacement team to implement health and safety buffers around vulnerable communities harmed by oil extraction, as the state science panel recommended more than four years ago. He should also begin phasing down production at declining oil fields statewide.

There is no legal or policy reason why fossil fuel extraction that threatens the welfare of local communities and the future of the planet should continue to expand. In fact, depleted oil fields in places like the San Joaquin Valley make ideal candidates for new solar and wind projects that will be needed to meet California’s goal of 100 percent clean power by 2045.

The tragic wildfires of the last few summers have driven home the reality of climate change. Our house is, quite literally, on fire. To stay on the bold path to which California aspires, Newsom should get out of the business of approving new drilling permits that encourage further fossil fuel development.

Deborah A. Sivas is the Luke W. Cole professor of environmental law at Stanford Law School and director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. She has written extensively about natural resource policy and has successfully litigated dozens of environmental law cases.
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