Gov. Jerry Brown is no climate action hero

Activists protest during a speech of Gov. Jerry Brown at the United Nations climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, on Saturday.
Activists protest during a speech of Gov. Jerry Brown at the United Nations climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, on Saturday. AP

Gov. Jerry Brown seemed surprised by what greeted him at the United Nations climate conference in Germany on Saturday. Less than a minute into his remarks, Californians living near fracking, oil refineries and Aliso Canyon stood up and decried the destruction that Brown’s industry-pandering fossil fuel polices have had on their lives.

I bellowed with them, our collective words silencing the audience. Met with demands of “keep it in the ground” from Richmond’s refinery communities, Brown yelled back, “Let’s put you in the ground so we can get on with the show here.”


I was shocked by Brown’s disrespectful and condescending retorts, but even more so by the crowd that cheered him on. Even at a climate change conference, the stories of impacted communities fell on deaf ears.

Many are desperately holding onto hope that Brown will fill the Trump-sized hole in the nation’s climate leadership. But the truth is that his rhetoric on global warming hides his support for aggressive oil and gas extraction in our state. California should not be held up as a shining example for other states and countries.

Many don’t know that California is the third-largest oil-producing state, or that oil companies extract millions of barrels every year of some of the dirtiest oil on the planet, far worse for our climate than Canada’s notorious tar sands oil.

Even as Brown dons his climate hero cape, he’s not curbing oil extraction. California regulators issue thousands of new drilling permits each year, including a projected 2,600 new wells a year in Kern County for decades to come.

To avert a climate catastrophe, it is urgently necessary to keep oil in the ground. Yet with toothless regulations and tax breaks, California rolls out the red carpet for oil and gas development.

California and Pennsylvania are the only oil-producing states that do not levy a tax on extraction. Brown administration officials are relentlessly seeking exemptions from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to allow oil companies to dump toxic fluids into underground water supplies.

Brown has pressured regulators to speed up permitting for oil companies, firing officials who did not comply. He has refused to ban fracking despite its use of toxic chemicals and the fact that it is fundamentally incompatible with fighting climate change. And he has failed to shut down the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, where the largest methane leak in U.S. history forced thousands to flee their homes.

Compounding the climate damage, many California oilfields operate dangerously close to homes and schools, emitting air pollutants that cause asthma, cancer and other health problems. Fourteen percent of Californians live within a mile of an oil or gas well. Drilling occurs disproportionally in low-income communities already choked by pollution.

The local and global damage from California’s dirty oil production demand nothing less than a rapid phase-out within the next several decades. California must ban fracking and halt permits for new drilling, fossil fuel infrastructure and oil field expansion. The state should eliminate subsidies and use the money to transition to clean energy, invest in public transportation and ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2025.

True climate leadership starts at home. Brown, despite his global hype, is failing this test.

Jean Su is the associate conservation director and a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. She can be contacted at