This week, California Governor Gavin Newsom convened a press conference, stood in front of the cameras and signed an executive order proclaiming California’s bold climate leadership. It earned him praise and positive headlines across the world. But like Newsom’s previous climate declarations, his announcement was big on symbolism and short on substance. He codified things already in progress and directed agencies to do things they were already doing. Rather than leading, Newsom kicked major decisions to the legislature. Instead of taking bold actions demanded by science, Newsom gaslit activists. He called us “emotional” and, ironically, disparaged our demands as “symbolic.”
The bottom line: Newsom’s much-hyped proclamation on electric vehicles is mediocre and his actions on oil and gas drilling are an insult to those fighting for clean air, clean water and their lives during this pandemic.
The best part of Newsom’s “new” order were already largely underway
First, let’s talk about the shiny object — the part of his Executive Order that was decent. Newsom announced a ban on the sale of new cars with internal combustion engines and mandated that all light duty vehicles sold by 2035, and all heavy duty vehicles sold by 2045 must be 100% electric. This is important because transportation accounts for 41% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also important because cars consume refined oil; reducing this demand is key to ending fossil fuel extraction.
But this fails the test of bold leadership for two reasons. First, California was already on track to do this. The California Air Resources Board was already working toward adopting these goals, and in developing new rules, their own technical experts said 2035 is not fast enough. Second, an all electric fleet will only have a significant climate impact if the fuel that powers the electricity is 100% renewable. Unfortunately, California’s 2045 goal for achieving 100% renewable energy is far too late a deadline, given the enormity of the climate crisis. It’s disappointing to see that Governor Newsom wasted an opportunity to accelerate these targets. He pursued symbolic action over substantive policy.
Issue by issue, Newsom has failed to accomplish what we’ve asked of him
Meanwhile, Governor Newsom’s actions on fossil fuel supply — mainly oil and gas drilling — were a complete mess. Newsom’s actions ignored climate science and ignored the urgency of the health crisis faced by families living near oil wells. Newsom failed to deliver a single thing Food & Water Watch/Action and our allies with Last Chance Alliance asked of him.
Here’s the breakdown of what we asked Newsom to do versus what he actually did.
- Stop issuing new oil and gas permits. Newsom has issued over 1,500 permits for new wells, and 2,673 total in 2020. His total since being in office is over 7,000 permits! California has over 80,000 active oil and gas wells, and adding over 1,500 more is unacceptable. It is extremely problematic to allow the fossil fuel industry to expand drilling during a climate emergency and global pandemic. We need to move off fossil fuels now. Approving new wells just makes things worse.
Newsom’s Executive order did nothing to reverse course on his doubling down on expanding fossil fuel production. Worse, during his press conference, Newsom stated that if California stopped drilling for oil, we would have to import more oil. He left out a very important fact that California’s oil imports are largely used to refine oil for gasoline and other fuels that we then export. Governor Newsom continues to approve increases in drilling and refinery production while finding any excuse not to curb either.
- Ban fracking. Newsom promised to ban fracking while running for Governor. Data from 2001-2015, shows about 20% of California oil comes from fracked wells according to a state study. Banning fracking would have significant impacts on protecting our climate, water and air as fracking spews methane and toxins into the air and leaks can poison water.
Newsom’s Executive order stated that he wants the legislature to ban fracking by 2024. Then during his press conference he doubled down and falsely asserted he does not have the authority to ban fracking — passing the buck to the legislature. Newsom’s authority to act, however, is clear. Director of the Stanford Law School Environmental Law Clinic, Deborah Sivas, wrote in a recent OpEd that the oil industry does not have the right to more drilling permits or the right to drill using risky practices like fracking. Further, Governor Newsom is the boss of the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), CalGEM issues drilling and fracking permits, and Newsom can tell them to stop. It’s that simple. In fact, it’s just what Newsom did last year when he temporarily halted approval of fracking permits. Newsom is not only contradicting legal experts — he’s contradicting his own prior actions!
It’s worrisome that Newsom directed the legislature to take on a fracking ban bill when he has the authority to do it himself, but even more troubling since he knows the oil and gas industry has enormous power to kill this bill. Year after year, the Oil Lobby with the Western States Petroleum Association at the helm is the biggest lobby in California. Oil money has easily defeated fracking moratorium bills in the past and just defeated a setbacks bill in August 2020. Only a handful of Oily Dems are needed to kill legislation, and the Oil Lobby has them lined up around the block.
Newsom also astonishingly downplayed the impact of fracking. In speech after speech he claimed fracking represents only 2% of California drilling. The truth: on average, about 20% of California’s oil came from fracking from 2001 to 2015, according to a state report. It seems unlikely that it’s now just 2% only five years later — but if it is, why not just ban fracking now? A ban on fracking would be bold substantive action — a sharp contrast to Newsom’s approach.
- Institute a 2500 foot health and safety buffer for oil and gas wells between sensitive sites like homes and schools (existing and future).
Newsom’s Executive order directed CalGEM to propose a draft rule on health and safety regulations by Dec 31, 2020. However, this order omitted a keyword, “setbacks,” – the key demand from the environmental justice community and a necessary mechanism to protect public health. Environmental justice communities and advocates have campaigned for a 2500ft setback between oil operations and sensitive sites like homes and schools. Gov. Newsom has never supported this demand despite his initial promise when running for Governor to “oppose dangerous drilling operations”. Newsflash: any drilling near homes, schools and hospitals is dangerous. Newsom again ignored this common sense request and left the door open for the oil industry to weaken this rulemaking process so severely rendering it pointless. Finally, CalGEM is already in the middle of a rule making process it initiated almost one year ago in November 2019. Newsom’s order essentially directs CalGEM to continue what they were already doing.
- Phase out oil drilling in California with a just transition for workers and communities.
Newsom’s Executive order directed the CalEPA and CA Natural Resources Agency to “expedite regulatory processes to repurpose and transition upstream and downstream oil production facilities, while supporting community participation, labor standards,and protection of public health, safety and the environment.” He required regulatory changes to this effect by July 15, 2021. This action is a far cry from a mandate to transition California off oil. Any number of policies could result from this, making it purely symbolic and another sidestep of responsibility to define bold goals. As Newsom sets timelines for reducing our reliance on oil via electric vehicle mandates with clear deadlines, Newsom must address the other side of the equation. He must manage the decline of drilling and set a deadline for this transition.
The bottom line is Governor Newsom is playing a political game with the lives and sustainability of California’s people and resources. We aren’t fooled, we demand better, and we hope that you will too.
More people need to know about this.