California Gov. Jerry Brown Was a Climate Leader, but His Vision Had a Fatal Flaw

Under Jerry Brown, California has become a leader on climate politics. But the state has done little to phase out fossil fuel emissions at their source.

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 07: California Governor Jerry Brown speaks during a press conference at the California State Capitol on March 7, 2018 in Sacramento, California. The press conference in response to an earlier speech by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a nearby hotel and the Justice Department's decision to sue the State of California over its controversial sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
Jerry Brown speaks during a press conference at the California State Capitol on March 7, 2018 in Sacramento, Calif. Photo: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

On a mid-September afternoon, 30,000 people marched down San Francisco’s Market Street in a demonstration they called Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice. One group walked behind a banner bearing the name of an eponymous statewide campaign: “Brown’s Last Chance.” California Gov. Jerry Brown had developed a reputation as a climate champion, but protesters felt that the urgency of the moment demanded more of him. Among other things, they called on Brown to “listen to science, not carbon polluters” by moving to keep fossil fuels in the ground. California — the world’s sixth-largest economy — has the country’s most ambitious climate policies by a mile, but it is also among the most prolific oil and gas producers in the U.S. — hence the papier-mâché likeness of Brown’s head atop an oil rig.

A few days later, 26-year-old Niria Garcia, an organizer with the campaign, showed up at the Global Climate Action Summit, or GCAS, which Brown hosted in San Francisco’s Financial District. After interrupting the governor as he took the stage, she and two other women were picked up and carried out of the auditorium by a brawny security detail, and then threatened with arrest. “What he is saying he is doing and what he is actually doing do not align,” she told me afterward, referring to Brown’s reputation — undeserved, in her view — as an environmental hero. “The moment Jerry Brown spoke up, we spoke up. The moment we started calling him into awareness about how much of a liar he is, security was already there.”

Its design flush with Sans Serif font, pastel blue signs, and exposed wood accents, Brown’s GCAS was designed to mimic U.N. climate talks, aesthetically and otherwise. Rather than a decision-making space for world governments, though, it provided a window into how businesses, along with regional and local governments, are planning to bridge the gap between America’s current path on climate and the goal enshrined in the Paris Agreement — holding up a California as a prime example. In that, GCAS was also something of a capstone to Brown’s political career, and his quest since the 2016 election to provide a foil to President Donald Trump — most forcefully when it comes to climate change. Come January, he’ll be replaced by Democratic Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom.

So which is he? A global leader in combat against climate change? Or a fraud whose fear of big oil has exacerbated the crisis?

Compared to Trump, of course, he may as well be Captain Planet. As GCAS highlighted, Brown made climate a centerpiece of his time in Sacramento and has some remarkable successes under his belt. On the day of the Market Street protest, Brown signed two bills to block offshore drilling in federal waters off California’s coast. A few days later, he signed another bill mandating that the state’s electricity sector run 60 percent on renewables by 2030 and 100 percent on zero-carbon energy by 2045. He also issued an executive order directing California’s whole economy to go carbon neutral by 2045, and greenhouse gas negative after that, removing pollutants from industrial activities. The state has had a cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions in place since 2012, and it’s fighting the White House in the courts to hold onto its ambitious low-carbon fuel standards. In July, California met its target of getting emissions below 1990 levels — four years early.

But as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report makes clear, California’s best may not be good enough. That document, which explains how to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius and warns about what will happen if we don’t, lays out a daunting challenge: phase out greenhouse gases from the world’s economy by midcentury at the absolute latest and make a headlong sprint toward clean energy. Doing anything less could condemn hundreds of millions of people around the world to death.

The point Garcia was trying to make at GCAS is one that California’s climate and environmental justice groups have long emphasized: Even with all the progress California has made, these kinds of measures are only half the battle to curb emissions. Any real climate action needs to phase out fossil fuel emissions at their source, which in California’s case means placing a check on its extensive network of drill sites and refineries.

“While Jerry Brown has done some good things,” said Pennie Opal Plant, a founder of Idle No More San Francisco and neighbor to the Bay Area’s string of oil refineries, “when it comes to the critical things that need to happen to ensure survivability of all of life under Mother Earth’s belly, he has failed.”

VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 07:  Firefighters monitor a section of the Thomas Fire along the 101 freeway on December 7, 2017 north of Ventura, California. The firefighters occasionally used a flare device to burn-off brush close to the roadside. Strong Santa Ana winds are rapidly pushing multiple wildfires across the region, expanding across tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Firefighters monitor a section of the Thomas Fire along the 101 freeway on Dec. 7, 2017 north of Ventura, Calif.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

As its hills burn, with hundreds dead and missing, California represents the future of how climate change will play out in America. And it could also represent the future of climate policymaking, once climate denial — a nonissue in most of the world and arguably on the wane here — loosens its stranglehold on U.S. politics with change-ups in Congress and the White House.

States are often seen as testing grounds for ideas that the federal government may not be ready for. The Golden State — where the climate debate is largely between politicians pushing different types of climate policies, not questioning whether global warming is a problem worth addressing — is in many ways a hopeful testing ground. But as Democrats prepare to intensify the fight against climate change on the federal level, they ought to pay close attention to the parameters of the debate in California.

The disagreement between Brown and his critics boils down to a distinction between different types of climate policies and divergent theories about what role they should play.

Emissions reductions measures generally fall into two broad buckets: supply-side policies, which deal with the production of energy, and demand-side policies dealing with its consumption. In the climate context, those words mean something slightly different than in introductory economics textbooks. Supply refers quite literally to the supply of fossil fuels, and so-called restrictive supply-side, or RSS, policies limit emissions at their source in wells, mines, and refineries through regulatory measures such as fracking bans. RSS policies also phase out policies that encourage coal, oil, and gas development, like fossil fuel subsidies. Supply-side policies support the development of clean energy with government investments in green infrastructure projects, subsidies for renewable energy, and research and development into new technology.

Demand-side policies, meanwhile, help to make and shape markets for things like solar and wind power and electric cars, discouraging consumers from buying dirty fuels while encouraging them to buy cleaner ones. That includes anything from carbon pricing to renewable portfolio standards to government procurement policies.

In the U.S. and abroad, RSS action has — bizarrely — been something of a taboo for most everyone except climate and environmental justice groups, who have been calling for years to keep fossil fuels in the ground. In a recent paper, economists Fergus Green and Richard Denniss write that “economists and policymakers have focused overwhelmingly on comparisons among policy instruments that aim to restrict demand for greenhouse gases, particularly cap-and-trade schemes and carbon taxes, as these are seen to perform better than alternatives against economists’ favoured criteria of ‘economic efficiency’ and its close relative, ‘cost-effectiveness,” while the same actors have been “remarkably silent on instruments that aim to restrict the supply of commodities and products whose downstream consumption produces greenhouse gas emissions.” Neither policy bucket is necessarily better than the other, but Green and Denniss argue that policymakers’ reluctance to push for RSS policies is leaving critical tools for fighting climate change in the toolbox. Both Germany and China, for instance, are undertaking ambitious clean energy projects but also continue to produce large amounts of fossil fuels.

California is no exception to those global trends. The state has focused the vast majority of its climate push on demand-side action. Its success on that front has been remarkable; California is now home to 50 percent of the country’s zero-carbon vehicles and accounts for 90 percent of investment in clean transportation. The California Air Resources Board, a regulatory agency, reported recently that “renewable fuels in the heavy-duty vehicle sector are displacing diesel fossil fuel as quickly as renewable power is replacing fossil fuels on the electricity grid.”

Crowds gather for the "Rise For Climate" march on September 8, 2018 in downtown San Francisco, California. - "Rise For Climate" is a global day of action demanding real climate solutions from local leaders. (Photo by Amy Osborne / AFP)        (Photo credit should read AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images)

Crowds gather for the Rise for Climate march on Sept. 8, 2018 in downtown San Francisco, Calif.

Photo: Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images

The crux of activists’ complaints — and the thrust of the “Brown’s Last Chance” campaign — has been the governor’s reticence to also take supply-side action and limit the considerable oil and gas drilling in the state. Indeed, Brown has done the opposite, approving over 21,000 new permits for oil and gas drilling since he took office in 2011. Sixty-seven of those new permits are for operations in communities of color, and 77 percent are in communities with higher than average poverty rates for the state. With AB 1775 and SB 834, the bills he signed the weekend before GCAS to block potential offshore drilling in federal waters off the Golden State coast, Brown took a step toward limiting fossil fuel supply. But those measures do nothing to address now-existing drilling on land, despite the poor air quality and poisoned water impacting communities living near those refineries.

That pair of bills sailed through the legislature with a veto-proof majority, leaving no room for Brown to maneuver. But environmental activists made note of the timing of his signing announcement.

“Jerry Brown is a master communicator,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, told me a few hours after the announcement. “If you want to move from a dirty energy economy to a clean energy economy, there are two things you have to do. You have to build the new — clean stuff, which is where he’s been focusing — but you also have to stop the old stuff. And he just hasn’t had the courage to stand up to big oil.”

California is among the largest producers and consumers of fossil fuels in the country. Each barrel of oil from the state is responsible for producing between 500 and 600 kilograms of carbon dioxide, including the carbon expended to drill and transport it. Of course, if California were to cut off its oil supply, at least some of it would be replaced with oil from elsewhere. That’s the argument presented by oil and gas lobbyists in the region. “Every barrel of oil not produced in California will be replaced by a barrel produced and shipped in from a region that doesn’t have our state’s stringent environmental laws,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, or WSPA.

But supply and demand influence one another, and the substitution wouldn’t be one to one. And if it were truly that simple, oil lobbyists wouldn’t bother coming up with talking points to counter it.

A report produced by the Stockholm Environment Institute, or SEI, found that each barrel of oil left undeveloped in California would reduce global oil consumption by anywhere from 0.2 to 0.6 barrels. What’s more, the supply chain of California crude oil is more carbon intensive than that from other major oil producers like Alaska, Saudi Arabia, or Ecuador, so oil substituted from elsewhere would still likely represent a net savings in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. By extension, if the state were to cut its oil production in half — to around 100 million barrels per year — the net carbon savings could range from 8 million to 24 million tons of CO2 annually. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of taking between 1.6 million and 4.7 million cars off the road every year.

The strong mandates for clean energy already in place in California help to reduce the risk that companies and households will turn to other carbon-intensive fuels like coal and could make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables far easier than it would be elsewhere. Given that the state is actively moving to phase out fossil fuel consumption through SB 100 and Brown’s executive order, California passing strong, complementary supply-side policies could make a sizable impact on both global emissions and the health of communities that sit close to drill sites and refineries.

Highrise buildings in downtown Los Angeles, California are seen on on a hazy morning on September 21, 2018. - Eighty-seven days of smog this summer has made it the longest stretch of bad air in at least 20 years, according to state monitoring data, the latest sign Southern California's efforts to battle smog after decades of dramatic improvement are faltering. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

High-rise buildings in downtown Los Angeles are seen through smog on Sept. 21, 2018.

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Moves to limit oil production in California could represent a major step toward decarbonization around the country. So why isn’t California using all the available tools to attack a problem it readily acknowledges is so important?

In response to an inquiry from The Intercept, the governor’s office focused on the effectiveness of demand-side policies that promote alternative energy sources. “Clearly, the world needs to curb its use of oil and the phase out is already underway in California where the state is committed to cutting consumption in half,” spokesperson Evan Westrup wrote in an email. “At the same time, oil production in California has dropped 56 percent.” It’s impressive but due largely to booming natural gas production in other states where reserves are easier and cheaper to access. “There’s a reason the White House and fossil fuel companies fight California on almost a daily basis — no jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere is doing more on climate.” Westrup declined to answer more specific questions about the governor’s approach to climate action.

Peter Erickson, a co-author of the SEI report, said the ongoing decline of oil production presents all the more reason for Brown to pursue supply-side policies. “California is already planning such a rapid reduction in oil consumption that they could basically match that pace of declining production if they stopped issuing new permits for new oil wells,” he told me. “That would lead to something like a 10 percent decline in oil production in the state. In recent years, they’ve had 7 to 8 percent decline anyway, so it’s not out of line with what they’ve already experienced.”

Rather than an overnight shut-off — which would likely provoke some kind of violent social unrest — activists are calling for supply-side policies along the lines that SEI lays out in its report, including a ban on new permits for oil and gas drilling. Advocates are also demanding a 2,500-foot buffer zone around sites of extraction, barring drillers from setting up operations within roughly a half-mile radius of homes, schools, and businesses. Citing health impacts, the interdisciplinary California Council on Science and Technology recommended setbacks as part of a 2015 study commissioned by the state legislature. (Colorado recently rejected a half-mile setback around new oil wells in their state. The oil and gas industry funneled over $40 million into the fight against Proposition 112 and successfully defeated it in the midterm elections.)

The need for setbacks in California is dire. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that as many as 600,000 people live within a quarter mile of toxic oil and gas drilling in populous Los Angeles County, which produces around 12 percent of California’s oil and gas. And within Los Angeles city limits — according to research done by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a regional environmental regulator — drillers used 21 million pounds of toxic chemicals between June 2013 and February 2017. Much of the state’s drilling activity and associated health impacts are clustered in working-class communities of color from the Inglewood Oil Field to the Central Valley, where carcinogenic chemicals sit trapped between mountain ranges to create some of the country’s worst air quality.

Demand-side policies can only directly address these local health impacts once they’ve fully succeeded; in a future in which there is zero demand for fossil fuels anywhere on Earth, none will be drilled for. California’s cap-and-trade system, for instance, allows oil and gas companies to purchase offset credits intended to reduce emissions elsewhere in the U.S. as they continue polluting in state and in many Californians’ backyards. Essentially, offset credits allow polluters to buy into projects elsewhere to balance out their own, the idea being that the additional investment makes new carbon-reducing activity possible that wouldn’t have been otherwise. Traditionally carbon offset markets have been ridden with problems, ranging from bad accounting to fraud, and California’s is no exception.

A general view shows oil pumping jacks and drilling pads at the Kern River Oil Field where the principle operator is the Chevron Corporation in Bakersfield, California on July 28, 2015. The field is the third largest in California, fifth largest in the United States and relies mainly on the steam injection method to extract the crude oil. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON        (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

A general view shows oil pumping jacks and drilling pads at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif.

Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

That’s a large part of why the state’s climate and environmental justice groups actively fought the bill that reauthorized the cap-and-trade system last summer. Rather than backing a measure that advocates say would have fixed several systemic issues with the existing program, SB 775, Brown backed a bill that was palatable to Republicans, moderate Democrats, and the oil and gas industry, AB 398.

“People who have been dealing with the impacts of dirty air from these heavy polluting industries should be able to see some relief from that in our state’s efforts to reduce our emissions,” Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, told me, pointing to the need for supply-side policies. “That’s what communities are really saying: Reduce emissions at the source. That’s both the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions overall — that’s the best approach to the global climate crisis — and it’s the best way to see the benefits of cleaner air in our neighborhoods.”

California expects the cap-and-trade system to deliver a little less than half of its planned emissions reductions by 2030. But a 2017 report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found that an oversupply of banked allowances in the system — anywhere from 100 million to 300 million accumulated free credits (“allowances”) to pollute — could put those goals at risk. If 200 million allowances are carried into the new cap-and-trade system, set to take effect in 2020, “2030 annual emissions from covered entities would be over 30 percent higher than the levels likely needed to meet the state’s target,” according to the LAO report.

AB 398 was also controversial because it kneecapped local air quality districts’ ability to regulate refinery emissions. That came as an especially tough blow to environmental justice organizers like Opal Plant and Yoshitani in the Bay Area, who both spent years working to get their local regulator to back more stringent pollution rules.

“We had just gotten the staff [of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District] to agree to regional caps on refinery emissions. And just as we were about to pass that, AB 398 came through, and one of the top wish list items for WSPA was local pre-emption,” Yoshitani explained. “They could see the writing on the wall: that all we would have to do is wage campaigns at every regional air district to get them to reduce industrial pollution by enforcing caps. There was no way they wanted to see that happen, and so the bill specifically pre-empted regional agencies from being able to enforce caps that are more stringent than what the state law already requires.”

WSPA, the regional lobby for the oil and gas industry, exercises enormous power in Sacramento across the aisle. The oil and gas industry as a whole has poured $122 million into California politics. Brown himself has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, taking $289,850 in his 2014 re-election bid. Asked about those campaign donations at a GCAS press conference, he said, “Politics runs on money, billions and billions of dollars. And all of those people are in the industry,” reiterating the line that California “has the most aggressive green energy plans in the Western Hemisphere.”

In October, Reheis-Boyd showered praise on Brown’s climate legacy in a Sacramento Bee op-ed, noting that he is “pragmatic, yet relentless, in his approach to environmental and economic issues” that leaves ample space for oil and gas to “remain a vital part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future.” She also chided Brown’s critics in the climate and environmental justice groups who, she argued, further “the false and unhelpful belief that the environment and public health have to be enemies with economic prosperity and the oil and gas industry.”

In a press statement, Reheis-Boyd lauded the cap-and-trade legislation in particular as “the best, most balanced way for California to comply with state law requiring reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” She contrasted it to the “more expensive ‘command and control’ programs” that were also on the table, apparently referencing SB 775. “These draconian programs,” Reheis-Boyd wrote, “would have forced businesses to make drastic changes, imposing strict regulations without any flexibility in implementation.”

If the IPCC report makes anything clear, it’s precisely the need for drastic changes to the fossil fuel industry — and a rapid phase-out. That will take, among other things, a rethinking of conventional wisdom that says that if the price of renewable energy is reduced enough, those energy sources will outcompete and ultimately replace fossil fuels. To their credit, Brown and the state legislature have in many ways rejected a laissez-faire approach and understood that markets alone won’t get the job done. That’s why they’ve taken dramatic steps to use regulations that force industries to abide by strict standards for everything from fuel efficiency to power generation. Much of that has been made possible through the creation of CARB, a state-appointed body with fairly extensive authority to scale back emissions reduction in line with its overall goals.

Notably, the WSPA has not been pleased by California’s more recent moves on climate. Reheis-Boyd told The Intercept via email that the more recent ban on offshore drilling “will have a negative impact on our state’s energy supply and the Californians who work to provide it.” She also said that SB 100 and Brown’s accompanying executive order were “another symbolic step that has unintended consequences and will end up significantly costing consumers in the end.” She added, “Bans are not the answer if California truly wants a sustainable energy future.” The state’s environmental justice activists, by contrast, were enthusiastic about that suite of policies, which will transition consumption in the state off fossil fuels by 2045 and dramatically reshape its energy landscape. They pointed, as well, to the fact that although SB 100 was signed by Brown, it was introduced and pushed for by state Sen. Kevin de León.

And even the policy experts who are excited about SB 100 dispute how much teeth the accompanying executive order will have.

“The only thing that is binding about the new executive order is a requirement that the climate regulator, CARB, discuss and plan for a goal of carbon neutrality by 2045,” said Danny Cullenward, an energy economist who sits on the oversight committee for the state’s cap-and-trade program. “Critically, CARB cannot issue regulations or make program reforms to implement this goal unless those actions are separately authorized by state law, which they are not in this case.” Still, the measure sends an exciting signal, he noted, adding that there’s precedent in recent years for executive orders eventually translating into legislation. “There’s no question the state is taking bold action in several critical areas,” Cullenward cautioned, “but the idea that we’re on track for our current statewide goals and therefore ready to credibly increase ambition is misplaced.”

BONN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 11: California Governor Jerry Brown, talks during a discussion at the America's Pledge launch event at the U.S. "We Are Still In" pavilion at the COP 23 United Nations Climate Change Conference on November 11, 2017 in Bonn, Germany. America's Pledge is a report detailing the efforts of U.S. states, cities and businesses to keep America on line in fulfilling goals towards carbon reduction set out by the Paris Climate Agreement. U.S. President Donald Trump has announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from the accord and the White House is sending its own delegation of fossil fuel supporters to the COP 23 conference next week to make the case for the continued role of coal and petroleum in world energy needs. (Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

California Gov. Jerry Brown talks during a discussion at the America’s Pledge launch event at the U.S. “We Are Still In” pavilion at the Climate Change Conference on Nov. 11, 2017 in Bonn, Germany.

Photo: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images,

The precedents California is setting now will have influence well beyond its borders, in particular when it comes to how much of a lead the state takes from fossil fuel producers. Oil and gas companies have for the last several years been angling to have a seat at the climate policymaking table, stalking U.N. climate talks and hanging out around the fringes of events like GCAS. While carbon pricing is a bare-minimum commonsense measure, a certain version of it — namely, a revenue-neutral carbon tax — is also the preferred climate policy of some of the world’s most prolific polluters, including Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips. They see it as the basis for a “grand bargain,” leveraging their support for such a policy in exchange for lifting regulations. It’s why they’re quite literally sponsoring the push for a carbon tax nationwide, throwing millions behind the Climate Leadership Council’s conservative carbon tax plan that would gut regulations. In a sense, they’re following WSPA’s playbook: reading the writing on the wall, as Yoshitani put it, and backing the policy that brings them the best possible outcome.

Brown, 80, is in the last weeks of his fourth and final term as California governor. No longer looking for campaign donations and eager to carve out his legacy as a climate hero, now would be an ideal time for him to confront the issue of fossil fuel supply head-on, be it through setback rules or a ban on new fossil fuel permits meted out via executive order. He could do what Colorado wasn’t able to with Prop 112, and no amount of industry funding would be able to stop him.

It would leave a legacy that Newsom would be loath to undo upon taking office.

“He’s still in office for a couple of weeks, and hopefully he will do the right thing,” Niria Garcia said of Brown’s impending retirement and the future of the “Brown’s Last Chance” campaign. “When he leaves, we’re going to hold the next one accountable. We’re going to remind the next one the same thing we remind Governor Brown: that it’s not OK to sell our future away to oil companies.”

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