Power Up: California May Be Burning. But It’s Also Still Drilling For Oil

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By Jacqueline Alemany with Brent D. Griffiths, WASHINGTON POST

September 15, 2020


DRILL BABY DRILL?: Much of the ire over the fires raging across the Pacific Northwest has thus far been directed at President Trump. But frustrations with California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom are also bubbling over his own climate policies.

Trump went to California yesterday, where Newsom challenged him to accept climate science, which shows that human-made climate change has made the West more vulnerable to extreme blazes. Trump instead blamed the multiple wildfires on lack of good forest management.

  • “And we come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science and observed evidence is self-evident that climate change is real and that is exacerbating this,” Newsom told Trump.
  • “ If we ignore that science, and sort of put our head in the sand, and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians,” National Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said, pushing back on the forest management argument.
  • Trump responded the climate will “start getting cooler.” Crowfoot said he wished “the science agreed.”
  • I don’t think science knows,” the president responded.

Friendly fire: Newsom has yet to address criticisms from his own constituents for continuing to approve new oil and gas drilling permits, contradicting his own rhetoric and campaign promise to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. 

Activists are applying pressure on Newsom to move beyond the debate over whether climate change is real and exacerbating wildfires  and mitigate the damage by addressing the state’s dependence on fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases into the air when burned.

“He’s getting caught in this debate about whether climate change is real, which is odd to us,” Alexandra Nagy, the California director at Food & Water Watch, told Power Up. “We know it’s real — we need to address the root cause and he’s avoiding that.”

Nagy pointed to Newsom’s failure to follow through on his promise to ban fracking and stop oil and gas practices harmful to the environment. 

  • By the numbers: “Despite pushing back against the Trump administration’s plan to expand oil extraction in California, the state has issued 190% more oil and gas drilling permits in the first six months of 2020 than were approved under [Newsom’s] first six months in office,” according to two advocacy groups, per the Associated Press’s Daisy Nguyen. 
  • “The agency that oversees oil and gas drilling in California issued 2,691 permits to drill new wells or rework existing ones the first half of this year, according to an analysis of state data by Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance.”
  • “In 2020, [Newsom] approved drilling permits for more than 1400 new oil & gas wells. In July 2020, Newsom’s team issued 12 new fracking permits to [Chevron] alone. [Newsom], which side of this #ClimateFires crisis are you on?” Sierra Peterson, a climate investor and former Obama White House fellow in the Office of Energy and Climate Change, tweeted. 

Gladys Limon, executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, told Power Up the governor has done some things “that are promising” like tackling some of the issues facing the state’s oil regulatory agency.

  • Key quote: “But he’s failed to outline his vision and concrete steps to address the source of the climate crisis that is plaguing our state which can’t be done without addressing the source — gas fossil fuel operations in California, which are disproportionately placed in and sacrificing communities of color,” she contended.

Newsom’s response: The governor’s office agrees that new permit approval has increased but disputes by how much, contending new state oil and gas permits approved in the first half of 2020 “are up only 7 percent on an annual basis compared to the first half of 2019 — not the 190 percent suggested by Consumer Watchdog in its recent news release,”according to an email from Lisa Lien-Mager, the deputy communications director of the California Natural Resources Agency.

  • “Actual new wells drilled in California in the first half of 2020 are down 90 percent on an annual basis compared to the first half of 2019,” Lien-Mager added.
  • But: “We report on total number of permits and our numbers match up exactly with theirs — we look at the types of wells being permitted and the differences between years and the rates of permitting,” Kyle Ferrer, a program coordinator at FracTracker Alliance who crunched the numbers, told us. “Our numbers are on track with theirs. We are just refining the data to look at the types of wells because of the implications on public health — something they should be doing as well.”

There are rumblings among activists Newsom will next week make a climate-action related announcement. He recently teased a push to “fast-track” California’s transition to clean energy.

  • “He offered few specifics, but suggested that the state’s target of getting 100% of electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045 was too slow. He also cited California’s efforts to put more electric cars on the road,” reports the Los Angeles Times’s Alexei Koseff. 
  • “He’s saying we can do better than goals we have already set …. but he’s failing to acknowledged the fossil fuel side of the issue — and that’s driven climate change since the beginning of the industrial revolution,” Nagy said of the impending announcement. “The climate apocalypse is already upon us  the question is how worse is it going to get.” 

Scientists, experts, and lawmakers agree that forest management is only a small part of the larger wildfire problem. And some are calling for big changes to government policies, including in California.

Jennifer Marlon, a research scientist and lecturer at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Climate Change Communication program, told Power Up the wildfire issue has been “developing over decades – if not centuries.” She said the current situation is a “tragic window of opportunity” for institutions previously unable to make the changes necessary to “fundamentally change the way we think about and manage fire.” 

  • “What’s happening right now is a microcosm of the broader climate change issue,” said Marlon. “We have to think outside the box and make radical society change changes… This is not the time to play both sides or walk a middle line.”
  • Cities and communities can take more immediate steps to lessen the wildfire damage: “At this point we’ve learned a lot about how to engineer homes and communities so that they can be more survivable,” Max Moritz, a wildfire expert affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the New York Times’s Brad Plumer and John Schwartz. “But these lessons aren’t being implemented fast enough.”
Consumer Watchdog
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