In summary

Newsom’s priorities — for the last three weeks of the session — include ramping up targets for greenhouse gas reductions and clean electricity, and creating safety zones around new oil wells.

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Ramping up goals for tackling climate change, Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked the Legislature to accelerate greenhouse gas cuts, set new interim targets for reaching 100% clean electricity and codify safety zones around new oil and gas wells. 

Newsom also is seeking regulations from the state Air Resources Board that would govern controversial projects that would remove carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it underground.

The governor’s memo on his beefed-up priorities — including measures that he would like the Legislature to enact this session — was sent to the leaders of both houses in the past week, according to Alex Stack, a Newsom spokesperson. 

His memo comes during the last month of the session, with little time left for the Legislature to accomplish what Stack described as an “ambitious climate agenda for this session.”

“We’re trying to get all this done,” Stack said about the five goals in the memo. 

The last day for the Senate and Assembly to pass bills this year is Aug. 31.

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance, may have experienced deja vu reading the governor’s proposals, as he’s sponsored bills that would have required setbacks around oil and gas facilities, established guardrails for carbon capture and sequestration and codified California’s commitment to carbon neutrality. None of that recent legislation made it past the Senate and Newsom did not appear to champion the bills.

Muratsuchi said while he’s pleased that Newsom has set new climate priorities, he needs to do more.

“We need him to not only nudge the Legislature, which has been working on these issues for years, we need his leadership. We need his willingness to push back against big oil and its allies,” Muratsuchi said. “The Legislature cannot do it on its own.”

Several top-ranking legislators did not comment on whether they would pursue new legislation based on Newsom’s recommendations.

“The Assembly appreciates the governor’s strong stance in favor of bold climate actions, especially as it echoes steps the Assembly has taken in recent years,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Lakewood. “I more than support such efforts. I agree with the governor that California absolutely must take more of the same kind of actions that the Assembly has been working on.”

State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Freemont, said “the governor’s latest climate proposals are getting a close look by senators as we come down to the end of session.”

“We need him to not only nudge the Legislature, which has been working on these issues for years, we need his leadership.”

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi

The question remains, however, whether there will be enough time in the legislative session to accomplish the goals.

Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley who sits on the Senate environmental committee and a joint legislative committee on climate change policies, said “it’s not too late.”

“For me, it’s welcome…It’s not unusual that something comes late. It’s not like this is all new subject areas. It’s already begun to be debated,” Skinner said.

Dave Weiskopf, senior policy advisor with NextGen Policy, an organization that advocates for progressive policy in California, said “this is an important moment in history with the federal government finally acting, with this urgency from the governor’s office, and with a lot of groundwork already laid by the Legislature for a lot of these priorities.”

“This isn’t a conversation that’s emerging out of whole cloth at the last minute,” added Danny Cullenward, policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate research organization. He said each element of Newsom’s new strategy “has a connection to long-standing policy discussions that have either been the subject of legislative oversight hearings, or actually addressed in real bills.” 

The memo comes after environmentalists have criticized Newsom for not acting faster to phase out fossil fuels and cut greenhouse gases.

Newsom sent a letter to the California Air Resources Board last month asking the agency to strengthen its draft climate change scoping plan by including measures for offshore wind, heat pumps in homes and cleaner aviation fuels, among other areas.

Newsom and legislators also are negotiating details of a nearly $39 billion climate budget. 

The five priorities outlined in the Newsom administration’s memo are:

  • Establishing in law a goal, originally set by former Gov. Jerry Brown, to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and no later than 2045.
  • Accelerating the pace of greenhouse gas cuts by requiring a 55% reduction to 1990 levels by 2030; the existing goal is 40% in the same timeframe.
  • Setting interim targets for alternative sources of energy — at least 90% by 2035 and 95% by 2040 — while maintaining the goal that 100% of the state’s retail electricity comes from solar, wind and other clean sources by 2045.
  • Creating a buffer of at least 3,200 feet between new oil and gas production wells and homes, schools and parks, and adding additional environmental controls for existing wells within the buffer zone.
  • Establishing a program at the Air Resources Board to advance research into carbon sequestration technologies for removing greenhouse gases from the air and storing them. He also sought a permitting system for geologic sequestration projects, in which carbon is buried in underground rock formations.

Some bills that are making their way through or stalled in the Legislature would address the governor’s priorities. Included is a bill that stalled last year that would have set a target to become carbon neutral no later than 2045, and another that would set interim goals for reaching 100% clean electricity, starting with 90% of all retail sales by the end of 2035. Others would set limits on carbon injection at oil fields and advance research on carbon sequestration.

The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about which bills Newsom intends to publicly back. 

Increasing the 2030 goal for greenhouse gas reductions to 55% “would be among the most ambitious goals in the world,” said Ryan Schleeter, communications director for The Climate Center. “This, to me, really is what stepping into a void of climate leadership looks like.” 

“What’s missing is a key strategy, a firm strategy to implement our existing targets.”

Danny Cullenward, CarbonPlan

But California is not on track to meet the existing 2030 goal, the Air Resources Board said in a statement after the release of the state’s greenhouse gas inventory last year.

“If I had to armchair quarterback state climate policy for a second, I don’t think we lack for ambitious targets. What’s missing is a key strategy, a firm strategy to implement our existing targets,” Cullenward said. “There’s a lot to like in the new provisions from a climate perspective, but there’s not a lot on implementation.”

Efforts to create safety zones around oil and gas facilities should sound familiar to Californians. The Department of Conservation’s Geologic Energy Management Division, also known as CalGEM, released draft rules proposing a 3,200-foot public health setback around new oil and gas development last fall as part of an ongoing rulemaking process. California lawmakers have also repeatedly tried and failed to pass laws establishing safety zones. 

Stack said the governor’s new goal for oil and gas setbacks isn’t a referendum on CalGEM’s ongoing efforts, but instead a signal of urgency. He said he “thinks they are pretty closely aligned” but couldn’t discuss the differences.

“Nobody’s dropping the ball,” Stack said. “It’s not to say that anybody’s doing anything wrong or that we don’t want to go through a CalGEM rulemaking process. But we know that this needs to happen and this is a priority.” 

But environmental justice advocates have for years called for stricter regulations regarding existing oil and gas operations, which emit pollutants that can cause health effects. One 2017 study estimated that more than 2 million Californians live within one mile of an active well, although other estimates put that number as high as 7 million.

By focusing mostly on new oil and gas development, Newsom’s proposal doesn’t go far enough, said Cesar Aguirre, senior community organizer for the Central California Environmental Justice Network. 

“Until it applies to existing wells, this policy is not complete and it will do nothing for the almost three million Californians who live right next to oil and gas extraction today,” he said in an emailed statement. 

Environmentalists also have long viewed carbon removal, capture and sequestration technologies as continued investments in the fossil fuel industry.

But Newsom said in his memo that the state won’t be able to reduce carbon emissions fast enough without them — a stance echoed by the oil industry. The Air Resources Board projected in its draft scoping plan that carbon removal projects must eliminate nearly 80 million tons per year by 2045 in order for California to achieve carbon neutrality.

Some experts say technologies already in use can capture and store more than 90% of carbon dioxide emissions from smokestacks. But Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineering professor, recently told legislators that the state is overstating the impact, and that the projects would provide “a lifeline for emitting facilities and will lock in fossil fuels for decades to come.” 

When asked why the memo was sent to the Legislature so late in the session, Stack said “there’s a lot happening,” such as the climate budget. “And this was another set of priorities that we’re moving on with urgency.” 

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Rachel Becker is a journalist reporting on California’s complex water challenges and water policy issues for CalMatters. Rachel has a background in biology, with master's degrees in both immunology and...

Julie Cart joined CalMatters as a projects and environment reporter in 2016 after a long career at the Los Angeles Times, where she held many positions: sportswriter, national correspondent and environment...