My turn: How Gavin Newsom can be the climate leader we need

By Kassie Siegel, Special to CALmatters

Gavin Newsom’s win as governor has sparked chatter about whether he will carry the torch of his predecessor on climate change. But that is an ill-fitting metaphor.

Gov. Jerry Brown dropped the torch halfway through the race.

Yes, California has become a leader in renewable energy, compared to other U.S. states, and Brown has waxed poetic about the need to address global warming. But he has refused to address our most important climate challenge—California’s incredibly dirty fossil fuel extraction.

California is one of the nation’s top oil-producing states, a status it fosters by providing the industry with generous tax breaks and weak oversight. Three-quarters of the oil produced in California is as carbon-intensive as the notoriously dirty crude from Canadian tar sands.

The science is clear: There is no room for new fossil fuel extraction if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change. Yet state oil regulators have issued more than 21,000 new drilling permits on Brown’s watch. Continued permitting is undermining California’s ability to meet its own climate goals and those of the Paris agreement.

Will Newsom finally stop this drilling free-for-all?

Stopping hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, should be a no-brainer. Fracking increases our state’s dirty fossil fuel extraction by expanding and extending production in existing fields and potentially opening new ones. It also uses massive amounts of toxic chemicals. But Brown refused to end this dangerous practice statewide.

Will Newsom ban fracking?

As California’s drilling operations drive climate change, they spew hazardous chemicals into our air and water, most often in low-income communities of color in Los Angeles and the Central Valley that are already overburdened with pollution. This is an appalling environmental justice crisis in our supposedly green state. It must be addressed.

Will Newsom back a health and safety buffer prohibiting oil and gas drilling within at least 2,500 feet of homes, schools, hospitals and other sensitive land uses?

Brown tries to justify his lack of action on oil production by saying Californians are dependent on cars. California does need to kick its addiction to fossil fuel-powered cars, but that doesn’t mean the state should let oil companies produce millions of barrels per year of some of the planet’s dirtiest and most climate-damaging crude.

Rather, state leaders must do more to speed the transition to clean transportation. California is falling behind. Governments in Norway, the Netherlands, India, the United Kingdom, France and Ireland have announced a ban on the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, some as early as 2025.

Will Newsom do more to speed the transition to clean transportation?

California can achieve a full-scale clean-energy revolution by leveraging the technology industry within its borders, addressing the public health damage from oil drilling, and swiftly phasing out fossil fuel production, decreasing the obscene amount of political power the oil industry currently wields here.

We can’t afford to have dirty oil money and politics hold back this much-needed shift.

The good news is that there’s reason to be hopeful that Gov.-elect Newsom will fill the gaping hole Gov. Brown left in California’s climate policy.

Unlike Brown, Newsom has refused campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. And on the campaign trail, Newsom talked not just about the urgency of the climate crisis, but also the importance of putting clean air and water over corporate profits.

Now that he has won with strong backing from California’s climate-focused voters, he has the mandate to take bold action. That means ending permitting for new oil wells and fossil fuel projects and committing to a fair plan to phase out the state’s existing oil and gas extraction, starting with wells within 2,500 feet of homes and schools.

By taking such necessary steps, Gavin Newsom will become the climate leader the state—and the world—desperately needs.

Kassie Siegel is the director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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