Why Climate Activists Protested Jerry Brown’s Swan Song

Why Climate Activists Protested Jerry Brown’s Swan Song

Climate-change activists hoping to hear the governor propose a new climate initiative during his State of the State speech Thursday were disappointed.


January 29, 2018

Why Climate Activists Protested Jerry Brown’s Swan Song

One might expect the final State of the State address from a governor who spent nearly half a century on California’s political scene to be a bit of a victory lap. Speaking before the state’s assembled legislators on Thursday, Jerry Brown took the time to list many of his achievements , including a balanced budget, low unemployment and criminal justice reforms.

But on what might be Brown’s signature accomplishment, climate change policy, activists hoping to hear a new initiative were disappointed. Brown didn’t mention oil and gas in his speech, and that’s a problem, activists say, because despite his reputation as a climate leader, his record on climate is mixed at best.

Shortly after Brown’s address, health professionals and members of the Oil Money Out campaign, a coalition of environmental, advocacy and political groups, gave a press conference on the steps of the state capitol prior to delivering more than 80,000 signatures petitioning Governor Brown and California’s elected officials to refuse to accept oil money.

South L.A. resident Gabriela Garcia gave an emotional recounting of the health problems her family had suffered as a result of living near the AllenCo oil wells.

“We would feel tremors,” Garcia said. “We would smell interesting smells in our neighborhood . . . Later we found out they were using masking agents. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon or at 5 in the morning we [felt] these tremors in the earth or . . . we smelled these smells that are not normal. My own daughter was waking up with blood all over her face.”

Garcia and other neighbors started People Not Pozos (People Not Wells) and were able to shut down one nearby well, but she said she fears AllenCo will keep trying to reopen it.

Several speakers said Garcia’s experience with urban oil drilling shows how Brown has been far too accommodating to the oil and gas industry.

David Braun, director of Rootskeeper and Oil Money Out, was an organizer of the event. He told Capital & Main that Brown needs to “walk the walk” on the environment and climate change.

“I’m always encouraged to hear Brown talk about climate change, but he has ignored the science about fracking and oil production,” Braun said.

“The influence of Big Oil has long been felt in California politics,” said R.L. Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus. She and other activists fought against the extension of Assembly Bill 398 last year, saying cap-and-trade was too friendly to the oil and gas industry.

Environmental advocates say California can’t meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets, let alone live up to its reputation as a climate leader, without severely reducing the amount of oil and gas production. California is third on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s list of top crude oil-producing states, behind Texas and North Dakota. Though the state has reduced crude oil production since the 1980s, California still delivers two million barrels per day from 12 refineries. According to a 2015 report commissioned by industry lobbying group Western States Petroleum Association, oil and gas contributes to nearly 500,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state, and accounts for 3.4 percent of the state GDP.

That amount of oil and gas activity has an effect on the state beyond economics. In 2015, a California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) report determined that fracking and urban drilling are dangerous for California and made recommendations such as mandatory human health buffer zones around oil operations. But so far, none of the scientific recommendations have been implemented.

And a 2017 report by the Center for Biological Diversity showed that urban oil drilling releases toxic air pollutants that cause cancer, asthma and other health problems, and that communities of color are disproportionately affected.

“Urban oil drilling uses the same chemicals used in fracking,” Braun said. “But because routine oil operations, which constitute most of the urban oil drilling in California, is not considered well stimulation, nobody is overseeing it.”

Despite California’s reputation of leading the fight for environmentally friendly policies, the oil industry spent more than $36 million in the 2015-16 legislative session, up from $34 million the previous year, according to an American Lung Association study. Miller says that money had influence on climate policies, including AB 398, the extension of cap-and-trade, which Miller said had its “genesis in oil industry talking points.”

A 2016 report by Consumer Watchdog, “Brown’s Dirty Hands,” found that energy companies, including giants Occidental, Chevron and NRG, had donated $9.8 million to Jerry Brown’s campaigns, cause, and initiatives, and to the California Democratic Party between 2009 and 2014. “This was hush money to protect the oil industry,” Liza Tucker, alleges. The report and demands by climate advocates led the California Democratic party to pledge that it would no longer accept donations from oil companies.

In her other capacity as co-founder of Climate Hawks Vote, Miller recently got the four major Democratic candidates – including Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, State Treasurer John Chiang, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin – to sign a pledge to take no oil money.

“I think this [pledge] shows the candidates at least acknowledge there’s an oil lobbying problem,” Miller said, adding that activists need to hold candidates accountable to ensure oil money doesn’t quietly seep into campaigns through independent expenditures.

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