In California: Big Win On Setbacks, Big Setback On Carbon Capture

California ended this legislative session with a mixed bag of climate bills. While we celebrate the victories, we’ll keep fighting for a complete energy transition.

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Climate and Energy

by Mark Schlosberg and Tomás Rebecchi

As California continues to face record temperatures and a historic dry period supercharged by climate change, the state legislature passed a series of bills, called for by Governor Newsom, to address the climate crisis. The result, however, was a mixed bag. 

The good news? The legislature passed a bill requiring a 3,200-foot setback between oil and gas wells and homes, schools and other vulnerable sites. This is a significant win for communities that have been advocating for setbacks for years. 

And the bad? The legislature also advanced a bill to fast track carbon capture, a costly and unproven industry scheme that will extend our dependence on fossil fuels. It also moved to extend the life of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. 

The Setbacks Bill Is A Huge Win For Communities Near Oil & Gas Operations

First, the good news (and it really is good news) — California passed a law (SB 1137) requiring a setback of 3,200 feet between oil and gas operations and sensitive locations like homes and schools. 

More than 2.7 million Californians live within 3,200 feet of an operational oil or gas well. For years, advocates have documented the public health impacts of these operations. 

The legislation would require a 3,200-foot buffer zone and prevent reworks of existing wells, providing a pathway for ending existing operations. 

This setback law came out of a multi-year campaign led by environmental justice coalition VISION. Thousands of Food & Water Watch supporters joined this effort through phone calls and written letters, hearings and rallies. 

Though Governor Newsom could have instituted a setback by executive action earlier in his term, this legislation is an unequivocal win for public health and communities. 

However, much work remains to protect communities from fossil fuel operations. Notably, the legislation didn’t include setbacks for polluting infrastructure like gas compressors or gas storage facilities. This is crucial for communities like Ventura, Playa Del Rey and Porter Ranch, where we are fighting dangerous SoCalGas facilities next to schools and homes. Stopping these operations must be a priority going forward. 

Legislature’s Embrace Of Carbon Capture Is A BigSetback for Climate Efforts 

Unfortunately, while advancing setbacks, Newsom also pushed legislation that embraces carbon capture, the climate scam backed by Wall Street speculators and polluting corporations

Currently, the California Air Resources Board is developing California’s climate plan according to the state’s climate change law. But CARB has drawn widespread criticism from environmental organizations for considering carbon capture. 

The media often talks about carbon capture as a proven technology, but most projects have under-performed and ended in failure. Projects rely on more fossil fuel power generation to run, and we can expect leaked emissions throughout the production and transportation. 

Taking this into account, capturing 90% of carbon emissions (which no plant has yet accomplished) means only 39% emissions reductions through the whole supply chain, from extraction to combustion. 

Widespread carbon capture comes with a host of other problems, from increased pollution to higher utility bills for ratepayers. 

But it all comes down to this: carbon capture will boost power demand, extending the life of fossil fuel power plants and extraction. That’s why the technology has been embraced by some of the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations. 

Newsom had previously called on CARB to prioritize carbon capture. After massive pushback on carbon capture through public comments to CARB, the governor turned to the legislature to advance SB 905. This bill would establish state policy to deploy carbon capture as a climate change strategy. 

While the bill prevents industry from using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (injecting the CO2 into wells to push out every last drop), it still advances carbon capture across the state. During debates on the floor this session, advocates of SB 905 have also made clear — they’re hoping to see carbon capture deployed statewide. 

Food & Water Watch partnered with Center for Biological Diversity and Indigenous Environmental Network to lead opposition to the carbon capture bill, though most organizations did not weigh in on it. Unfortunately, we saw even some of the state’s most progressive legislators embrace SB 905. 

California Needs Near Zero, Not Net Zero

Newson also advanced AB 1279, which sets a goal for California to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2045, rather than near zero emissions. With net zero, California subtracts things like carbon capture and offsets from their emissions calculations. This allows the oil and gas industry to keep emitting and polluting. 

But we can directly reduce emissions by phasing out fossil fuels completely. A rapid ramp-up of renewable energy coupled with a draw down of fossil fuels is more efficient and less expensive. And, it will bring an end to the pollution that has plagued Californians for too long. 

Along these lines, California legislators considered a bill that would have mandated an additional 15% emissions reduction by 2030 (from 40% to 55% below 1990 levels). But notably, that bill failed. 

Going forward, we have a lot of work to do to educate our decision makers on carbon capture’s insurmountable downsides, and our need for a fast and complete energy transition.

Newsom Dodges Renewables With A Nuclear Bailout

In addition to setbacks and carbon capture, Newsom called for a bailout and extension of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power facility. This session, the legislature advanced a bill to do just that. 

The dangerous facility sits near fault lines and was slated to close in 2025. The legislature postponed the date to 2030 and provided a potentially forgivable $1.4 billion loan to fund the extension. 

But rather than throwing money at nuclear power, the state should be pouring all available resources into developing solar and wind. 

In this session, Governor Newsom and the legislature took significant action to protect communities with setbacks. But “climate strategies” like carbon capture won’t address the scientific realities we’re facing. The state’s climate policy remains a far cry from strong climate leadership. Our elected officials need to be better educated on what we really need for climate change response. We need to collectively call, in no uncertain terms, for bolder action. 

For starters, spread the word on carbon capture — it’s a scam, not a solution.

Learn more about the carbon capture boondoggle and why we need renewable energy, fast.