California Governor Gavin Newsom wants to speed up the state’s transition to carbon-free electricity and speed up the timeline for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Those are among the proposals the Democratic governor has brought to lawmakers as they work to figure out how to spend the $19.3 billion set aside for climate change in the state budget.
He also wants to establish permitting policies for projects that would remove carbon dioxide from the air and enact the state’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2045, as well as a ban on new oil wells within 3,200 feet of homes and schools.
“The ambition of California’s climate goals must match the urgency and scale of the climate crisis,” the Newsom administration wrote in a document distributed to state lawmakers that was obtained by The Associated Press and The Desert Sun. “Increasing ambition in the near term supports the unprecedented pace of transformation needed this decade to create the clean energy systems of tomorrow.”
Environmental justice activists say much more needs to be done much more quickly to clean up pollution from existing oil and gas operations near the neighborhood, though they have offered some praise.
“We’ve waited too long for the governor to support setbacks and stop neighborhood drilling across the state,” said Dan Ress, a fellow at the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. “While the proposal only applies to new wells and ignores recommendations from California scientists to apply the rule to existing wells that also threaten our communities, we applaud Governor Newsom for taking this monumental step to end all neighborhood drilling.”
Cesar Aguirre, senior community organizer for the Environmental Justice Network of Central California, said of the ban on new wells near homes and schools: “This long-awaited step forward gives Californians an opportunity to focus our work on making sure that the setback ultimately applies to existing wells. Until it applies to existing wells, this policy is incomplete and will do nothing for the nearly three million Californians who live near oil and gas production today.”
In May, Aguirre alerted authorities to a methane leak from an oil well in the Bakersfield area, which led to the discovery of more than 40 other leaks in areas of that city. Kyle Ferrar, western program coordinator for the Fractracker Alliance, released new infrared camera-based data this week showing 68 different oil drilling and production sites with uncontrolled methane emissions in Los Angeles, Ventura and Kern counties — many of them in residential areas.
Alex Stack, Newsom’s deputy communications director, dismissed the criticism, noting that the governor’s proposals include strict new pollution controls on existing wells “that the oil companies will not be happy with.”
“We’re doing more than any other governor in terms of a buffer, and controlling the contamination of existing wells is a big part of that as well,” he said.
Stack also noted that a task force has been formed in response to reports of methane leaks, and he said government officials plan to work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and data companies to accurately map methane leaks from the air. Methane is a fast-acting greenhouse gas that can also cause immediate health effects at high levels.
But Ferrar said that while pollution controls should apply to all oil and gas wells, regardless of location, most of the leaks he documented “cannot be fixed by these controls. Rather, they were the result of aging infrastructure and operator negligence. “
The The governor’s proposals will be part of the state’s $300 billion state budget. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a budget without figuring out how to spend the climate money. Newsom and state legislative leaders must reach a deal by the end of August.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, noted that the Assembly has previously approved bills that would do much of what Newsom wants, including making the carbon neutral goal into law and setting a nature-based carbon removal goal.
“I would say that I am more than supportive of such an effort,” Rendon said in a statement. “I agree with the governor that California absolutely needs to take more of the same actions that the Assembly is working on.”
Brian Dahle, a Republican senator and Newsom’s opponent in the November election, said he thinks the governor’s plan is inappropriate. He said California should spend money to thin out overgrown forests that catch fire too easily and release a lot of carbon into the atmosphere.
“Put everything on the table and let’s reduce carbon,” he said. “He’ll set a goal, and (the Legislature) will probably accomplish that goal, and he’ll take a victory lap and say, ‘I saved everybody in the world,’ and nothing’s changed.”
California already has some of the nation’s most ambitious goals to divest from fossil fuels by switching to electric cars and home appliances. State air quality officials have already adopted or proposed a number of new rules to achieve those goals, including a ban on the sale of new gas lawn equipment, a ban on the sale of new gas-powered passenger vehicles until 2035, and requiring all of California’s electricity to come from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2045.
Newsom’s proposal goes even further. The state, for example, must ensure that its greenhouse gas emissions are 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Newsom wants to change that to a 55% cut. State leaders have pledged to make the state “carbon neutral” by 2045, meaning it removes as much carbon dioxide from the air as it emits. Newsom’s proposal would turn that from a goal into law.
Setting more ambitious goals is a good start, but making sure they are implemented is more important, said Danny Cullenvord, a lawyer and economist who works on California climate policy and is part of a group overseeing the state’s cap-and-trade program. He was particularly skeptical of increasing the 2030 emissions reduction target, as many observers believe the state is not on track to meet the more modest existing targets.
“If it provides an opportunity to have an honest conversation about implementation, that’s definitely positive,” he said. “But I worry that we haven’t had that conversation.”
Still, he said he’s excited about Newsom’s proposal to set near-term goals for ensuring that more of the state’s electricity comes from renewable and non-carbon sources. It won’t change the state’s requirement that 100% of its retail electricity be zero-emissions by 2045, but it will set interim benchmarks to ensure the state expands solar and wind projects more quickly.
Renewable electricity is better for the environment, but it is not as reliable as traditional energy sources such as burning coal and natural gas. Solar and wind power depend on the weather, and the state lacks batteries to store excess energy for use at night. The state’s hydropower plants have been hit by a severe drought that has reduced the state’s reservoirs.
Two years ago, California lost power during an extreme heat wave, causing power outages that affected hundreds of thousands of customers.
Newsom vowed not to let that happen again. He said his plan would maintain reliability while keeping electricity bills affordable. Both goals will be difficult. Newsom has already expressed a willingness to use fossil fuel-powered energy sources to avoid blackouts if necessary during the hot summer months. Meanwhile, California’s electricity rates are already among the highest in the country.
“Achieving our goals of 100% clean electricity by 2045 remains a key component in addressing climate change and preventing these weather conditions in the first place,” said state Sen. Josh Becker, D-Senate President. on Energy, Utilities and Subcommittee on Clean Energy Future Relations.
Newsom also wants the Legislature to try again pass a new state law to ensure that new oil and gas wells in California are not located within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, parks and other public facilities. Similar bills have failed in the past. Newsom and the state’s oil and gas regulator, the California Division of Geological Energy Management, proposed the same distance and pollution controls last October, but the agency has yet to finalize its regulation.
Like the regulator’s proposal, Newsom’s would not shut down oil and gas wells already in that buffer zone. More than two million Californians live that distance from oil and gas wells. Instead, it proposes health and safety controls for these existing wells.
CalGEM has been criticized by environmental groups for more than a decade for lax regulation of oil companies and has struggled to use or monitor its own enforcement powers, as The Desert Sun and ProPublica previously reported.
“Recently discovered methane leaks near homes and schools show how important it is for the safety buffer to contain existing wells, not just new ones. And these leaks show CalGEM’s egregious failure to demonstrate the will or ability to keep communities safe,” said Hollin Kretzman, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “An independent panel of scientists has confirmed that pollution controls are not enough to protect the millions of Californians who live near dangerous wells. The only way to do that is to get rid of these dangerous wells that are harming the residents nearby.”
Desert Sun staff member Janet Wilson contributed to this report. Wilson is a senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun and co-author of USA Today’s Climate Point newsletter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @janetwilson66 on Twitter