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

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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.

On Desalination And Drought With Activist Conner Everts

Categories

Climate and EnergyClean Water

by Leah Garland and Mia DiFelice

This May, a coalition of water advocates won a victory against the Poseidon desalination plant planned for Huntington Beach, California. As part of the 22-year effort, Food & Water Watch helped to shut down plans for the plant. If it had been approved, Poseidon would have wreaked havoc on marine life and driven up community water rates. At the same time, the plant would have bypassed more cost-effective, more sustainable and more just conservation solutions. 

Our Manger of Individual Philanthropy Leah Garland sat down with Conner Everts, long-time water activist and consultant. They discuss the Poseidon fight, the dangers of desalination and the future of water in California. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Activist Conner Everts and interviewer Leah Garland.

Laying The Groundwork Against Desalination

You have been Food and Water Watch’s Water Consultant since we were founded in 2005. How did you become a water consultant?

I think of myself more as an elder advisor on water because I’ve been doing it for so long. And I come from it the old-fashioned way. I was a fisherman, and so I loved rivers, and I could see the impact of what was happening. So I decided to focus on water back in the ‘80s.

When Wenonah Hauter started Food & Water Watch, I began consulting with them. The two issues I focused on were Cadiz, a desert-mining water project in the Mojave, and desalination, not just with Poseidon but with all the plants up and down the coast.

We hear a lot about how desalination is good for other places, like Israel, to provide clean water in dry areas. So why is desalination not good for California?

In California, it’s a case of “technological fix.” The water industry and cities are asking, “How can we maintain our level of water waste and our lifestyle without changing it?” 

But before Israel, Spain or Australia did desalination, they got their per capita water use down to 40 gallons a day. In California, we’re at about 80-90 gallons in residential areas. Instead of conservation, much of the state’s basic water management policy is to pray for rain at this point.

We over-allocate the amount of water we have at least five times. And that was before climate change. Water is a finite resource. Until we treat it like that, we’re not dealing with reality. 

A Hard-Won Victory Against Desalination in Huntington Beach

How did the campaign find success in its most recent battle with Poseidon?

When Poseidon started in Huntington Beach, they found a lot of political resistance. So they went to San Diego and managed to get the Carlsbad plant through, in the midst of fires and a dry time. 

But that plant has provided less water than they would have by reducing their demand, at a far greater cost. And Poseidon got a take or pay deal, meaning that whether people need the water or not, they’re going to pay for it. And that made it good for Poseidon, but not the ratepayers whose water rates went up and up. 

So when Poseidon came back to Huntington Beach, opposition against them had grown. We had all the resources we needed from tribal and environmental justice groups, and a UCLA report calling for a human right to water — affordable, safe and clean water for all.

I think that was a key issue: Can a private company essentially industrialize the ocean and make a profit off of it, while ignoring the public trust?

Poseidon said they weren’t going to take any public money, but they went for money that should have been going to affordable housing through state agencies. We found we were part of a much more complicated financing issue, where corporations take money that’s available — that should be used for pollution control and affordable housing — and they try to apply it to a private project. We gave them a lot of heat for that.

The fight ended with a unanimous decision against the plant, from the now majority-women Coastal Commission with tribes and environmental justice organizations leading the way.

What has Food & Water Watch’s role been in the movement against desalination?

For a long time, Food & Water Watch was the only one fighting desalination work. And they don’t mind going after the Governor, or making the connection between energy and water. Some groups are more siloed, but Food & Water Watch wasn’t. 

The model we used was working with local groups, helping them build up their own capacity. We were able to mobilize people and bring them together. Food & Water Watch had a big voice there. It wasn’t an “It takes a village” moment, but rather “it takes a large regional metropolis” to find solutions because water should be a regional issue. 

It shouldn’t be dictated by state policy or water agencies. It shouldn’t be dictated by engineering firms or private speculators like Poseidon. It should be dictated by all the people impacted. 

Continuing The Fight For A Better Water System

What does California need to do to protect its water considering our water situation right now and the worsening effects of climate change?

We’re faced with these, what I call, “zombie boondoggle water supply” options. They’re these pipe-dream fantasies of how we’re going to provide water. Yet we know we can do more with less water if we use it efficiently.

But if you really want to have equity in water, those who use the least should pay the least. That would support the human right to water. 

Also, desalination plants need power, and if you’re running a power plant on the coast 24 hours a day, that impacts the air quality of the people living inland. But desalination benefits coastal development, like beachfront roads and hotels. Expanding that is going to raise water rates. And that’s going to impact people who can’t afford water, who live in hotter inland areas. 

At the same time, are we going to allow the extinction of salmon, steelhead and sturgeon? Those fish are the bottom of the food chain, and those are dying off. That impacts fish, seals, orcas and the salmon runs. And that impacts Indigenous communities, who are dependent on the salmon runs in their culture, not to mention for their food. 

If you get into the details of water, it’s not as simple as “Well, just build a desal plant.” But it can be simple if we continue to reduce our demand and acknowledge the people who need it most. We can reduce our use. We can break the cycle of repeating these issues over and over again. 


We’ll Break The Cycle With Your Help

The battle against desalination is far from over. In August 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a new water plan that includes measures to grow and fast-track desalination in California. 

In the months ahead, the state faces additional desalination proposals in Orange County and Monterey. Meanwhile, Newsom has pushed to reopen the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant with desalination infrastructure. 

California doesn’t need desalination. It needs water conservation, a fast transition off fossil fuels and a system that guarantees safe, clean and affordable water for all. We have the power to push for the sustainable and equitable future of water we deserve.

Everyone must know: California deserves better than desalination!

Western Drought Isn’t Going Anywhere. It’s Time to Rethink Water Use.

Categories

Climate and EnergyClean Water

by Mark Schlosberg

You wouldn’t know it by the water use in much of the Western U.S., but the region is mired in its worst drought in over 1200 years. Driven by the climate crisis, more than half of the West is in exceptional, extreme or severe drought. Only 17% of the West is experiencing normal conditions. 

This is bad news for our water supplies. Reservoir levels in California and across the West have sunk to historic lows. For instance, the Colorado River system provides water for 40 million people. Its two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are just 26 and 27% full, respectively. 

This drought isn’t going away anytime soon. One study projects a 75% chance that it lasts through 2030. But if climate change escalates unabated, dry conditions could last even longer. 

It’s time for our elected leaders to take a hard look at the biggest water abusers and drivers of climate change. It’s time to take on big agribusiness and the fossil fuel industry. 

The Fossil Fuel Industry Drives Drought While Abusing Our Water

We know that climate change is driving drought and Big Oil drives climate change. Yet in the West, oil and gas keep flowing, as do permit approvals for more drilling. 

In California and New Mexico, for example, the very industries driving the drought continue to flourish. California is the seventh-largest oil-producing state. New Mexico, meanwhile, is the third-largest producer of oil and a top-ten producer of natural gas. 

On top of climate-changing carbon emissions, oil and gas production uses a huge amount of water. In California, the oil and gas industry has used over 3 billion gallons of water since 2018. That’s enough water for nearly 150,000 people for a year. 

Plus, wastewater from drilling can pollute limited fresh water supplies. The industry has even dumped its wastewater into clean aquifers. 

Thirsty Crops And Factory Farms Make Matters Worse

Another culprit behind the megadrought: Big Ag. In the West, thirsty farms abound. Agriculture makes up 80% of California’s water use, most of it industrial. We see this pattern in other Western states like New Mexico and Oregon, too. 

The West’s agriculture industries are so thirsty in part due to water-intensive crops that aren’t suited for our dry climate. Of California’s 80% freshwater used for agriculture, 20% goes to water-intensive tree nuts. 60% of these crops, like almonds and pistachios, are exported abroad.  

Similarly, 16% of that agricultural water goes to growing alfalfa — another water intensive crop, some of which is exported. In New Mexico, it’s the same story: Big Ag uses scarce water resources to grow alfalfa for hay, 30% of which it exports. 

Much of what Big Ag doesn’t export, it uses to support factory farms. These operations also suck up large amounts of water while causing massive amounts of water and air pollution. 

In Oregon, there are 11 mega-dairies with over 2500 cows each. Combined, they consume 8.2 million gallons of water a day just for drinking and washing. This doesn’t even include the water used to grow feed. All this water could meet the average daily indoor water needs of over 124,000 Oregonians. 

In New Mexico, mega-dairies (500 head or more) use over 32 million gallons a day. And in California, mega-dairies use a whopping 142 million gallons a day. That’s enough water for every resident of San Diego and San Jose combined. 

At the same time, factory farms produce huge amounts of waste, polluting air and water and contributing to climate change. Those 11 Oregon mega-dairies produce emissions equivalent to that of 318,000 passenger vehicles

Agriculture is critical and we need to produce food to feed people. But we also need a sustainable food system that works in our current environment.  

Droughts Hurt Communities, Especially Those Already Disadvantaged

These water abuses and the droughts they cause are hurting communities across the West. For example, the drought has caused salmon runs to collapse in California. This significantly impacts the Indigenous communities that have long relied on salmon fisheries. The devastated fisheries, along with limited water and disputed allocations, hits these communities especially hard.

Moreover, the drought contributes to the water scarcity crisis that threatens access to clean drinking water. Hundreds of wells are running dry, while water pollution intensifies. These two factors threaten the human right to safe, accessible, affordable water. In California alone, over a million people lack reliable access to clean water. 

We Need Accountability For Water-Abusing Corporations. Not More Energy-Intensive Projects.

To meet our water needs, elected officials and their appointees must take on these industries. They must also reform water rights and allocations to prioritize the human right to water and protect our water as a public trust resource. 

Moreover, elected officials can conserve our water supplies by stopping permits for new fossil fuel projects and factory farms. Rules and legislation can further rein in senseless water uses in a dry climate that will only get drier. 

Many of the West’s water systems, from California’s aqueducts to the Colorado River system, were established during historically wet conditions. Now, we have swung in the other direction. 

Our governors, state legislators and Congressmembers will need to revisit old assumptions and adapt to our new reality. That means moving toward renewable energy and sustainable farming, while centering water as a human right. 

Unfortunately, some are doing the opposite. Governor Newsom in California, for example, just announced his water plan. While it contains some good measures around stormwater capture and water efficiency, it doubles down on an industrial model. It calls for more dams, a costly and destructive water tunnel and a buildout of ocean desalination plants by gutting regulations. 

These facilities are not only unnecessary — they’re energy-intensive and bad for the ocean environment, too. 

This approach also sidesteps the root of the problem: big corporate water abusers. We won’t see improvements in our water crisis until those in office face down water abusers and rebalance our water system. 

We don’t need energy-intensive and expensive industrial tech fixes. Rather, we need to aggressively transition off fossil fuels and factory farms and towards a renewable and sustainable future. 

Spread the word: A sustainable water future means stopping abuses by Big Ag and Big Oil!

Corporations Add Fuel And Fan Flames In Our Wildfire Crisis

Categories

Climate and Energy

by Mia DiFelice

Deep in an old growth forest some 100 miles from the Pacific coast, a storm is brewing. First the thunder, then the lightning. Deer run for cover. Birds shield their chicks in their nests. A fork of lightning taps the top of a Douglas fir older than anyone alive in the town just a few miles away. 

In a few minutes, a single lick of flame will turn into an inferno. In less than 24 hours, thousands of acres will have turned to ash. 

We know wildfires are unpredictable, scary and devastating. We also know exactly who’s behind the crisis that millions of folks in the West and across the country face each year. 

Water-hungry and climate-wrecking corporations are turning our forests into tinderboxes. One of the drivers is Big Oil. And if the industry is allowed to continue, we’re looking at a much hotter, more dangerous future for our forests and our communities.

Unprecedented Wildfires Extend Their Reach

Megablazes, the kind of fires that take out more than 100,000 acres, used to be a once-in-a-career event for firefighters. But now, “during the summers we are seeing them on a weekly basis,” a program manager in the U.S. Fire Administration told the Guardian. 

In 2021, California saw 2.6 million acres lost to fire, blowing past the previous five years’ average of 1.4 million acres. Across the country, 70,000 communities are at risk for devastation by wildfire. 

Wildfires are growing across both space and time. Fire seasons that were once contained in the late summer and fall are now stretching earlier into the summer and later, even towards winter. 

On top of that, fires are becoming harder to fight. The high winds and dry conditions create fires that behave unpredictably and thus more dangerously. If we continue emitting at our current pace, climate models show the risk of large wildfires will grow 600% by 2050. 

Climate Change Adds Fuels To Forest Flames

The story behind today’s wildfires begins centuries ago. Once, indigenous communities purposely lit and managed fires. This prevented devastating fires by thinning out trees and shrubs, which would fuel a large flame. 

By the early 20th century, federal forest policy aimed to put out any fire as quickly as possible. Fuels like shrubs, dead plants and fallen branches built up for decades. More fuel means any spark — lightning, downed power lines, campfires — can turn into an intense and fast-moving inferno. 

But the problem has gotten far worse due to climate change. Climate change means less snow and rainfall, more high winds and more hot, dry weather. The forest has less moisture, and fuels become drier and more flammable. 

Climate change has more secondary effects, as well. For example, in West coast forests, bark beetles have grown more active thanks to the milder winters and drier trees.

The beetles bore into trees, killing them. Though the trees’ sap can push the beetles out of their bore holes, less moisture in the environment means less sap. The dry, dead trees then provide even more fuel for flames. 

Large fires also create climate feedback loops. The smoke sends more emissions into the air, which worsens climate change. This creates ideal conditions for wildfires, which send more emissions into the air, and so on. 

Big Oil Is Turning Up The Heat

California has been front and center in the news on wildfires for the past several years. But despite the state’s twin crises of drought and fire, it’s still our country’s 7th largest producer of crude oil. This is a recipe for worsening disaster.

The fossil fuel industry contributes to the state’s climate crises in several ways. It pumps carbon emissions into the air. It’s also an incredibly thirsty industry that threatens the entire region’s water cycle. From January 2018 to March 2021, fossil fuel companies in California used 3 billion gallons of water for drilling. 

When it’s not sucking up water, Big Oil is polluting it. For decades, oil corporations have gotten rid of their wastewater by injecting it deep underground. They also inject water into oil wells for enhanced oil recovery, a method for pushing out the last stubborn dregs of oil from a well. 

California is home to 1 in 3 U.S. oilfield injection wells, numbering int he tens of thousands. Every barrel of oil drilled results in 15 barrels of wastewater, which is full of salt, trace metals and toxic chemicals like benzene. 

The wells that hold this wastewater are poorly regulated and often leak, threatening groundwater supplies. Oil corporations have even injected wastewater directly into drinking water aquifers. 

If allowed to continue, the state’s fossil fuel corporations will continue worsening the drought. Less water in the environment means less rain and drier conditions — the key ingredients for wildfire.

We Know How To Reduce Our Wildfire Risk

Industry has run roughshod over our water supplies and our environment for too long. Big Oil and Big Ag are driving the climate crisis and fueling growing wildfires. If we are to slow down climate change, reduce wildfire risk and save millions more acres from a blaze, our elected leaders must act now. 

Currently, California is laying out its plans to address the climate crisis through a process at the California Air Resources Board. The board, appointed largely by Governor Newsom, will be setting the state’s strategy for addressing climate change. 

It’s critical that this process directly confronts the fossil fuel industry and that Newsom and CARB act with urgency. This means stopping new permits for drilling and fossil fuel infrastructure, phasing out all fossil fuel production by 2030 and rejecting industry scams like carbon capture that will only extend our dependence on fossil fuels.

In doing so, Governor Newsom could show real climate leadership — while addressing the wildfire crisis threatening communities in California and across the country.

Learn more from our allies in the Last Chance Alliance. This clip breaks down the factors behind California’s wildfires and how you can help tackle the industry responsible.

People power is our greatest tool to tackle climate change and the resulting wildfires. Help us build it.

California’s Climate Mirage: How Newsom’s Blueprint Falls Short

Categories

Climate and Energy

by Mark Schlosberg and Jessica Gable

While struggling through a historic drought, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is drafting its plan for addressing climate change. The Board took comments on the plan in June and thousands of Californians submitted comments calling for aggressive action. But the draft plan dodges any real action on climate change. Instead, it opts for a “carbon neutrality” deadline of 2045 while relying on industry schemes like carbon capture to get there.

Governor Gavin Newsom likes to characterize California’s climate leadership as bold and aggressive, but this plan is neither. To really lead, Newsom must tell CARB to go back to the drawing board. The governor appoints most of the board’s members. That means he can show leadership by demanding real solutions and a quick timeline in line with science. 

California must move off fossil fuels by 2035; 2045 falls far short

Climate scientists are clear that we need to immediately stop expanding fossil fuel production and infrastructure. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report warns that with any delay, we risk missing “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” 

In response to the CARB plan, we’ve partnered with the Indigenous Environmental Network and Center for Biological Diversity to organize a letter to Newsom and CARB calling for bolder action. Signed by more than 150 organizations, the letter calls for California to reach near zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. It also calls for a completely green electric grid by 2030. Finally, it demands faster timelines in transportation and buildings and a rejection of industry schemes like carbon capture.

Climate Leadership Means Rapid Action on Transportation and Infrastructure

Any serious plan to address the climate crisis needs to aggressively address transportation and infrastructure. This means big investments in public transportation and requirements for all new car sales to be electric by 2030. At the same time, we need goals for trucks and faster electrification of trains and ports. These will make sure that we reach 100% electric by 2035. 

A meaningful climate plan must also take on gas infrastructure in buildings. Many California cities have already passed bans on gas in new buildings. Now, we need state mandates to immediately end the use of fossil fuels in new construction and require electric appliances for all new buildings by 2025. These requirements must come with support for low- and moderate-income households in the transition. 

Climate Leadership Means Rejecting Industry Scams like Carbon Capture

Most glaringly, the proposed plans rely on industry schemes like carbon capture. Yet carbon capture is expensive and unproven. It’s a boondoggle that will only serve to lock in fossil fuel use for years to come. Other scams like offsets, factory farm gas and hydrogen power are packaged in ways that sound good. But they won’t do a thing to help the climate or communities. 

“Governor Newsom has an opportunity to change [California’s] destructive legacy by revising the 2022 draft Scoping Plan to stop the release of fossil fuel emissions at the source and end carbon neutrality mechanisms that prop up industry scams like carbon capture techno-fixes, carbon trading and offsets, hydrogen and bioenergy. These are not real solutions that will halt the devastation of fires and extreme water shortage. The time is now for the California Air Resources Board to put our communities first; before the polluting corporations.”

Thomas Joseph, Hoopa Valley Tribal member, organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, and co-author of our coalition letter

Current plans fall far short of what we need to address the climate crisis, but Governor Newsom still has time to act. He should urge CARB to return to the drawing board and come back with a plan that rises to the challenge. He could make a real and rapid transition off fossil fuels the centerpiece of his administration’s agenda. And, he could use the power of his office and bully pulpit to move a bold agenda. This would show real climate leadership — leadership that could move other states, the country, and other nations. 

In the coming months, we’ll see whether Newsom and CARB are serious about the climate crisis, or if all their climate talk is just a mirage in the drought. 

Spread the word: California deserves better climate action!