Politico – Careful about making wildfire smoke a climate villain

By Camille Von Kaenel and Blanca Begert, POLITICO 


SMOKE, MEET FIRE — Wildfire smoke is quickly becoming a climate punching bag. That might be a problem for the climate.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom invoked the smoke in his lawsuit against oil majors earlier this month, blaming them for helping “fuel the fires that have choked our skies with smoke.”

It’s easy to trigger visceral memories of the red skies that blanketed San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C., earlier this year and in 2020, especially as the smoke creeps back over the northern border from wildfires in Oregon.

But villainizing smoke risks undermining a climate strategy Newsom has embraced: prescribed fire, which reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire by eliminating dry brush.

California and the feds are both wrestling with how to deal with — and talk about — wildfire smoke. There’s obvious tension in trying to reduce smoke in the long term by creating it in the short term.

That tension came up in the Capitol earlier this month with SB 310, a bill to reduce hurdles for tribes conducting controlled burns on their land. Air pollution officials opposed it, and it didn’t advance.

Tribes say some smoke is OK and, in fact, good for the environment. “It’s not fair to see people get sick and die because this process has been managed out of existence for too long, but we can’t allow that to become a justification for not using fires as a major part of the solution,” said Bill Tripp, natural resources director for the Karuk Tribe, which backed the bill.

California’s congressional delegation agrees. It wrote to U.S. EPA earlier this year asking for looser standards for particulate matter — which causes lung and heart disease — in order to enable more prescribed fire. The GAO weighed in in March, also on the side of more fire.

The Biden administration is trying to bridge the gap. A report released today by a commission of federal, state, local and tribal officials recommends increasing the use of “beneficial fire” while also helping public health and land management agencies prepare for its health effects.

Air pollution officials in California have been warming to the idea, according to a top air cop. But it’s still a hard conversation.

“We have to recognize that while … smoke is a much easier pollutant to manage when it’s performed in a controlled way, as opposed to an uncontrolled wildfire, and that does have advantages, it’s still PM [particulate matter] smoke,” said Erik White, Placer County’s air pollution control officer and the president of the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association.

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Climate change is a public health emergency. The climate crisis puts health at risk, amplifies health disparities and threatens clean air progress. Despite decades of air quality progress, 98% of Californians live in areas impacted by unhealthy air, with lower income communities and people of color experiencing greater health burdens. California dominates the list of the nation’s most polluted cities. See how your city ranks at StateOfTheAir.org. Learn more.


LOW CARBON HIGH PRICES — Newsom is really concerned about high gas prices. He’s been railing against oil industry profiteering and signed a law in April to investigate price gouging, which he touted at Climate Week earlier this month.

Meanwhile, his administration is readying proposed amendments that could raise gas prices under the state’s low carbon fuel standard (LCFS), a credit-trading program that seeks to incentivize electric vehicles and alternative fuels.

Under the California Air Resources Board’s own modeling, a proposed tightening of the program’s carbon intensity threshold for fuel would raise the price of credits enough to raise gas prices by 25 cents a gallon by 2030 and $1.80 by 2040. CARB will discuss the amendments at a meeting Thursday.

It’s a bit awkward, politically. “[Newsom’s] got a balancing act here, which is not a particularly comfortable position to be in,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic political strategist in California. ”He needs to do what he can to keep prices at the pump as low as he can. But at the same time, he needs to paint a realistic picture of the way we’re going to get out of this conundrum, which is obviously switching to alternative means of transportation and alternative fuels.”

The oil industry, which has to buy credits to offset its emissions under the LCFS, hasn’t signaled it’ll try to hit Newsom over a proposal to tighten fuels’ carbon intensity another 10 percent below 2010 levels by 2030.

“We have concerns about where this may be headed,” said Kevin Slagle, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association, but he did not directly oppose the change.

Part of the reason, he said, is because the industry benefits from the LCFS. It’s invested in alternative fuels — like biodiesel, biomethane and hydrogen — that generate credits in the program. “Our companies are constantly at work to produce ever-cleaner fuels,” he said, pointing to Marathon Petroleum’s refinery in Martinez, which it converted to produce renewable diesel.

Environmental and environmental justice groups have argued againstincentivizing fuels produced from manure and from plants because, they say, the facilities increase greenhouse gas emissions as well as air pollution in low-income communities and communities of color. They’re advocating for realigning program funds away from combustible fuels — which make up 80 percent of the $4 billion in credits the program generates annually — and towards electric vehicle infrastructure.

Regardless of which type of energy sources count for credits, a more stringent LCFS will mean higher gas prices, which impacts low-income people disproportionately. Environmentalists are pushing to make sure the proceeds from utility credit sales go toward lowering the cost of EVs. “We’re trying to make that spending more effective and more equity focused by having it be largely in disadvantaged communities,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air.

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INSIDE THE BLACK BOX — Turns out Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara has some of the same questions as we do about his plan to woo property insurersback to California by allowing them to use forward-looking climate models.

What will that do to rates? How will the models account for things like using fire-resistant building materials and creating buffers around a neighborhood?

If you have answers, feel free to email [email protected] — and tune in to a workshop the Insurance Department is holding tomorrow at 1 p.m. It’s not a formal public hearing because the department has not yet proposed new rules, but it’s meant to gather public feedback. Consumer advocates are going to be there with gloves on: Consumer Watchdog is planning to object to the modelers’ relationship to insurers.

WORTH NOTING — The latest poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, out today, notes that a majority of voters — 55 percent — say it’s a bad time for the state to be issuing bonds to pay for projects and programs. That’s not great news for Newsom, who next year will ask voters to approve $26 billion in bonds, including a climate bond that lawmakers are hashing out now.


FIELD OF DREAMS — A bill on Newsom’s desk would raise money from oil companies to cover the cost of plugging old wells. Its author is worried about a veto.

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) held a press conference Tuesday at a former oil-field-turned-public-park in eastern Los Angeles to drum up support for AB 1167, which would require companies buying oil wells to provide an upfront bond large enough to cover future costs of plugging and cleaning them.

Carrillo’s concerns stem in part from opposition expressed by Newsom’s Department of Finance, which argued the bill could dissuade large oil companies from taking on responsibility for smaller companies’ abandoned sites.

“The Department of Finance analysis is rooted in doing more of the same,” she said in an interview. “Clearly, it doesn’t work. In this community alone, we have over 200 orphaned oil wells that have not been capped, that have not been cleaned, while the city is also building new housing right on top of them.” Newsom’s office declined to comment on the bill.

Advocates are also planning a rally tomorrow in Bakersfield with Delano Vice Mayor Salvador Solorio-Ruiz.

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