CalMatters – Newsom burnishes his national image by waging new attack on oil industry

By Dan Walters, CALMATTERS

When Ken Cory, an assemblyman from Orange County, was running for state controller 49 years ago, he portrayed himself as “the man oil companies fear the most.”

Ever since, California politicians have periodically – when it seemed advantageous – denounced the companies that supply Californians with automobile fuel and other petroleum-based products.

The latest is Gov. Gavin Newsom, who seized upon a spike in gasoline prices last year to portray petroleum suppliers as price-gouging leeches. He persuaded the Legislature to impose state oversight on their finances and, if warranted, fine them for excess profits.

Newsom also signed legislation to restrict the siting of new oil wells, and the industry responded by collecting signatures on a referendum that would, if voters agree, repeal the measure.

Newsom struck again a few days ago with a lawsuit, filed by Attorney General Rob Bonta, accusing major oil companies of concealing research proving petroleum use is a major cause of climate change.

“For more than 50 years, Big Oil has been lying to us – covering up the fact that they’ve long known how dangerous the fossil fuels they produce are for our planet,” Newsom said. “California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for billions of dollars in damages – wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging our air, deadly heat waves, record-breaking droughts, parching our wells.”

It’s a little surprising that Newsom didn’t include the heartbreak of psoriasis in his list of oil industry sins.

His announcement of the suit coincided, not accidentally, with Newsom’s sojourn to a climate change conference in New York and a flurry of network television interviews, and thus is a new wrinkle in his vigorous effort to build a national image as a major political figure.

It’s noteworthy that suing “Big Oil” for its role in climate change is not exactly new. Many other such suits have been filed but none has yet achieved the holy grail of making oil companies pay many billions of dollars to counteract climate change.

It’s at this point that a couple of other facts warrant mention – that Newsom and his entourage traveled to New York aboard an airliner that burns petroleum and that his personal wealth is grounded in money originating in J. Paul Getty’s oil empire.

The trust of Newsom’s patron and surrogate father figure, Gordon Getty – one of J. Paul Getty’s sons – provided the seed money for Newsom’s wine and restaurant business.

Newsom’s late father, a long-time Getty family lawyer and advisor, was director of the trust at the time. Without that investment, it’s questionable whether Newsom would have achieved the wealth that allowed him to pursue a political career.

Does that make Newsom a hypocrite? Perhaps, but at least he should acknowledge that when the oil industry was concealing research into climate change – if it did – it also was providing the wherewithal to make him a multimillionaire.

With Newsom in New York this week, another oil-related issue arose in Sacramento: a demand from Consumer Watchdog that the governor veto a bill that the Legislature approved just before it adjourned last week.

The measure, Senate Bill 842, makes a seemingly minor tweak to the oil profit legislation Newsom championed, requiring the state Energy Commission to consult with the Department of Industrial Relations and oil refinery labor and management before issuing regulations on refinery maintenance shutdowns.

The Western States Petroleum Association sponsored the bill and Consumer Watchdog alleges that it creates a loophole that would weaken the price-gouging law.

With gas prices spiking again, it’s another opportunity for Newsom to burnish his credentials as a crusader against the industry.

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