Soapbox

If Gov. Brown is so green, why does he back oil drilling?

Demonstrators protest the Brown administration’s failure to stop fracking in California during a rally at the state Capitol in 2014. The federal government could open up new public lands in California to fracking and oil drilling.
Demonstrators protest the Brown administration’s failure to stop fracking in California during a rally at the state Capitol in 2014. The federal government could open up new public lands in California to fracking and oil drilling. Sacramento Bee file

When I get onstage Saturday to speak at the March for Science Los Angeles, I'll undoubtedly see clever signs in the crowd – maybe blown-up photos of President Donald Trump staring directly at the solar eclipse without protective glasses, or signs that ask "What do Trump and atoms have in common? They make up everything.”

Trump and his anti-science administration are deservedly the central focus of the march. Its gag orders and threats of budget cuts got scientists out of their labs in early 2017, and the ghastly parade of Orwellian censorship and destructive rollbacks has continued.

John Fleming.jpg
John Fleming

But in my speech I'll point out that Gov. Jerry Brown, the supposed champion in efforts against climate change, is also guilty of tossing science aside for dangerous special interests. In stark contrast to its green reputation, California is one of the largest suppliers of dirty oil in the nation, and state policies encourage oil companies to suck out millions of barrels each year.

The science is clear that the world's developed oil and gas fields contain enough carbon to blow us past the 1.5 degree Celsius limit of the Paris climate accord that Brown claims to care deeply about.

Opinion

California's oil is dangerously carbon-intensive; my organization found that three-quarters of oil produced in the state is as climate-polluting as notoriously dirty Canadian tar sands.

But Brown turns a blind eye to the very serious dangers of our state's oil drilling. His regulators continue to issue thousands of new drilling permits each year, and he has refused to ban fracking, which expands production in once inaccessible oil and gas reservoirs.

When called out on this contradiction, Brown usually barks that keeping oil in the ground in California means an equal amount of oil will need to be imported from elsewhere. Therefore, he argues, the oil might as well be produced here under what he insists are the strictest environmental regulations.

But the science disagrees. A recent study by the Stockholm Environment Institute found that every barrel of California oil left in the ground would result in a net decrease of about half a barrel of oil consumption globally. Reducing the Golden State's oil production would therefore decrease both global production and carbon emissions.

Allowing California's oil drilling to continue also hurts our health. Dozens upon dozens of studies confirm that oil extraction and refining pollutes surrounding air with chemicals that cause cancer, asthma and other serious health problems. Since 5.4 million Californians live within a mile of an oil or gas well, this is a devastating blow to public health. And because drilling occurs disproportionally in low-income communities and communities of color, it's also unjust.

California can't be a real climate leader or even meet its own climate goals without keeping its dangerous oil in the ground. More than 750 environmental, public health, faith and community organizations agree; we launched the Brown's Last Chance campaign this week to demand the governor put California on track to phase out fossil-fuel production within the next several decades.

In his final year, Brown needs to stop sweeping inconvenient science under the rug and fix California's dirty oil problem. If he doesn't, our coalition will protest his Global Climate Action Summit in September. And it won't be Trump's face on the signs.

John Fleming is a climate scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at JFleming@biologicaldiversity.org.
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