By Blanca Escobedo, Special to CalMatters

Blanca Escobedo is a policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, bescobedo@leadershipcounsel.org.

The consequences of climate change do not impact all Californians equally, and here in the San Joaquin Valley, community members and agricultural workers are on the frontlines of the air pollution, water scarcity and increased heat that are inextricably tied to climate change. 

Our health, well-being and future prosperity depend on enacting meaningful solutions to accelerate the transition off of polluting fuels. 

That’s why it’s so disheartening when the lawmakers we’ve elected to represent us push false climate solutions rather than championing the bold action we so desperately need. California legislators have pushed a misleading picture of the climate benefits of so-called “renewable natural gas” while ignoring the air quality and water impacts that will further burden San Joaquin Valley communities. 

Numerous studies show that renewable natural gas – the fossil fuel industry term for biogas produced from organic material like crops or animal manure – is limited, expensive, environmentally risky and a potential environmental justice disaster. It is not the silver bullet against climate change that fossil fuel companies and their backers describe. 

In fact, documents from fossil fuel companies show that renewable natural gas is at the center of a communications campaign aimed at stalling the transition to clean energy. By claiming that mixing a small amount of renewable natural gas into the existing gas system can cancel out climate pollution from gas, fossil fuel executives intend to stall the transition to truly clean and green energy. 

By ramping up the production of renewable natural gas for use in buildings and in cars and trucks, California will expand unsustainable agricultural practices that continually pollute nearby communities. 

The San Joaquin Valley won’t benefit from larger dairies – we will, however, benefit from sustainable agricultural practices that not only produce food for local communities, but also protect our air and groundwater.

If the renewable natural gas supply is expanded, we also risk expanding and creating new sources of methane emissions. Renewable natural gas facilities only capture and convert a portion of the methane produced from manure on factory farms into gas. Meanwhile, more cows mean more methane from enteric emissions, more air pollution and more groundwater pollution.

On top of the climate and environmental risk, there are also economic risks. 

In reality, the potential for profit comes out of the pockets of fellow Californians. Renewable natural gas is four to 17 times more expensive to generate than fossil gas. Without corporate welfare, in the form of taxpayer subsidies, the renewable natural gas machine runs dry. 

Despite the clear and unacceptable risks that the expansion of unsustainable renewable natural gas projects pose to our communities, policymakers continue to greenlight additional subsidies to the industry. The California Public Utilities Commission is poised to approve an additional $40 million in subsidies to expand the polluting pipelines that connect dairy projects to the natural gas pipeline system. 

This funding allocation would be particularly egregious given that the money is slated to come from the climate credit account. In other words, these crucial funds are designed to fund bill credits for rate-payers to offset the transitional cost to climate change policies – cash that so many Californians need in this economic crisis. Or they could be used to fund programs that actually help ratepayers by addressing climate change while cleaning up the air.

The California Public Utilities Commission may also approve a policy that would allow gas companies to market renewable natural gas as clean and sustainable even as those projects exacerbate pollution and undermine resilience in our communities and stall real action on climate.

In short, the vision for a future powered by renewable natural gas is not based on facts – it’s based on fossil fuel industry talking points. By buying into their agenda, we risk stalling the roll-out of science-based climate solutions that are essential to protecting our health, livelihoods and prosperity. 

Here in the San Joaquin Valley, we know that the stakes are too high. We will not allow fossil fuel or pseudo-renewable energy companies to thwart our transition to clean energy by pushing false climate solutions. 

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