A boat ramp ends in the dry lakebed at Lake Folsom on April 22, 2021. The water level is currently at about 38% capacity. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
A boat ramp ends in the dry lakebed at Lake Folsom on April 22, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

​​California has been setting America’s green standard since first declaring war on smog in the late 1960s. In the last two decades, the state has become one of the nation’s most aggressive forces on climate change. For supporters, that policy pathmaking is a source of great pride — and for detractors including many Republicans, one of derision. 

Newsom was elected with plenty of green cred. A Bay Area Democrat with the endorsement of most major environmental groups, he promised to carry on the climate change fighting legacy of his predecessor, Jerry Brown. 

But California has been beset by a cascade of environmental tragedies, and the governor has been besieged with criticism from both the left and right. Fossil fuel-related bans have outraged the oil industry and many conservatives, but have come too late and too filled with loopholes for some environmentalists. Wildfire seasons have grown more severe, a seasonal political liability for the governor, no matter how much of the blame he actually deserves. And though Newsom made access to clean drinking water an early priority — with mixed results — the current drought seems to have caught him flat-footed

What he’s done:

  • Ban future fracking: After dancing away from this hot-button campaign promise, Newsom finally moved toward a phase-out. The fracking ban isn’t slated to go into effect until 2024, but in July, the administration denied 21 additional fracking permits, citing environmental concerns.
  • Announce the end of fossil fuels (eventually): The governor has set two especially audacious goals for the state: an end to oil extraction by 2045 (he wants to bump it up to 2035) and a ban on new gas-powered cars by 2035. These aren’t detailed policies, and Newsom won’t be governor long enough to see them implemented, but they’re signals to both business and other policymakers where the state is headed.
  • Prohibit a widely used pesticide: For decades, California farmers have used chlorpyrifos to kill the pests that ravage their fields and orchards. It’s also a neurotoxin. The administration ordered it banned, though it won’t be fully outlawed for two years.

What he hasn’t:

  • Defend environmental rules against Trump: In 2019, top Senate Democrat Toni Atkins pushed a bill to give state agencies carte blanche to turn any Obama-era environmental regulations reversed by the Trump administration into state law. The bill passed, but Newsom vetoed it, siding with water agency heads and farmers who were particularly concerned that endangered species protections would be used to curtail water transfers.
  • Prevent wildfires: Clearly not. Newsom’s time as governor has coincided with some of our worst wildfire seasons. Though his administration has ramped up spending on forest management and fire prevention — a budget item that often gets the financial short shrift over fighting active fires — Newsom has also overstated the scope of its recent efforts, according to CapRadio
  • Support buffers between oil wells and homes: State lawmakers have twice proposed mandatory setbacks between oil and gas-related facilities and “sensitive receptors” — namely, homes, schools and medical facilities. Both bills died in the Legislature, buried in opposition from industry, labor, business-aligned Democrats and Republicans. Newsom didn’t vocally support either bill and hasn’t stepped forward to offer executive workarounds, despite calls to do so from environmentalists.

CalMatters reporter Julie Cart contributed to this story.