California’s Green Governor: A Climate Hero With A Wrinkled Cape

Thursday, January 25, 2018
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When Californians look back a generation from now on the environmental legacy of Governor Jerry Brown, what will they see?

It’s a good bet that they will view Brown as one of the key leaders worldwide in what was—with any kind of luck—a successful fight to lessen the damage from global warming.

Within California Brown has presided over a doubling of wind power production, a nineteenfold increase in solar energy, and the deployment of more than a quarter million electric vehicles statewide. With energy efficiency improvements, California consumed less energy in 2015 than it did when he was elected in November 2010, despite the growth in population and economic activity.

California has emerged as a leader on climate policy, adopting ambitious standards for renewable energy and a first in the United States system for putting a price on carbon pollution in most of our economy and committing to investment in the infrastructure that’s required for a carbon-free future, from high-speed rail to more trees in our communities.

In this era of global warming denial at the federal level, Brown has positioned California as an example of effective state leadership, helping rally local and state leaders across the United States and around the world to the cause of addressing climate change.

That’s a lot to be proud of.

But there is a less happy side to Governor Brown’s environmental legacy, one that he has the chance to change during his last year in office.

Under Brown California has remained America’s third-leading producer of crude oil, trailing only Texas and North Dakota, and is the nation’s fifteenth-largest producer of natural gas. Were all the oil and gas produced each year in California to be burned, it would emit roughly ninety million metric tons of carbon dioxide. When combined with the greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas production, processing, and refining, California’s carbon footprint from fossil fuel supply could amount to nearly a third of the greenhouse gas emissions accounted for in California’s greenhouse gas inventory.

That much fossil fuel production is hard to square with the notion of California as a global climate leader.

The processes of producing oil and gas don’t just threaten the climate. Emissions from refineries and oil fields create health-threatening air pollution, with the chemicals used to extract gas through hydraulic fracturing endangering our water supply. On top of that we’ve got the risks inherent in storing and moving fossil fuels around the state: witness the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage site blowout in 2016.

So far Brown has resisted measures to reduce California’s production of fossil fuels, including limits on the use of the most environmentally damaging practices, such as fracking. His logic is that as long as people still need oil for our cars and factories, fossil fuels are going to be produced somewhere, if not in California, then in Oklahoma or Alberta. Since California has stronger environmental protections than many other oil-producing regions, the argument seems to go, it would be irresponsible for the state to stop pumping oil and gas out of the ground and, at the same time, stop benefiting from the dollars flowing into the state.

That argument won’t cut it. As a world we’ve got some tough realities to face; one of them is that we need to put ourselves on a diet where fossil fuels are concerned. There will be economic pain in some sectors and opportunity in others, but if we don’t suffer the pain and grab the opportunities, we’re going to end up having to find some other planet to live on, and that won’t be cheap or pretty. If enough cities, states, and countries vowed to limit fossil fuel production and “keep it in the ground,” fossil fuels would get more expensive and difficult to obtain, hastening the transition to clean energy sources and limiting global warming.

Last month France became the first country in the world to ban fossil fuel exploration, effective immediately, and fossil fuel production, beginning in 2040. France produces roughly a tenth as much oil as California, making the move both easier and less significant. But if California, with its mighty role in the industry, were to lead other oil producers in making a similar commitment or even, in the short run, commit to phase out the worst and most environmentally damaging methods of fossil fuel production, that would set an example for the world.

As gutsy as Governor Brown’s leadership has been on climate change, the steps the Golden State has taken on climate change thus far have largely played to our strengths. California’s clean tech industry is a global force, thanks to the state’s early and aggressive efforts to promote solar energy, energy efficiency, and other technology-based approaches to cutting greenhouse gas pollution.

Curbing our production of fossil fuels, however, will be harder. But it will be even more of a challenge in poorer states – West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Dakota—and we’re asking them to do it too. California has far more resources than some of those places to weather a sacrifice in the interests of the greater good.

Let’s be clear: through his first seven years in office in his second turn as California’s governor, Jerry Brown has proven himself an environmental hero. It is hard to imagine where the Golden State and the world would be without his leadership.

But as this environmental hero approaches the end of his term as governor, the wrinkles in his cape are clearly visible. By committing California to reduced production of fossil fuels—as well as reduced use—Governor Brown can cement the state’s reputation as a true environmental leader, set a powerful example for the rest of the world to follow, and bring a safe climate one step closer for our kids and the kids of the future. 


The new year began with an old environmental controversy in California: whether to further invest in offshore oil drilling, which the Trump administration want to begin expanding in 2019, much to the coastal locals’ chagrin? The Trump plan would allow oil and gas companies to lease seven areas in the Pacific Ocean: two off Northern California, two off Central California, two off Southern California, and up north off Washington State. The last time California offshore leases were offered? It was 1984 and the heady days of James Watt, when areas off Big Sur, San Mateo, and Sonoma Counties were in play (there are presently twenty-three oil platforms in federal waters off California and four in state waters). Speaking of which, there’s the making for a state/federal showdown: California’s State Lands Commission has jurisdiction over waters extending roughly three miles offshore. Meaning: that the state can make it difficult to transport oil and gas from sea to land. Leases may get sold and rigs may go up, but they won’t be getting in the way of paddle-boarders and kayakers.