At COP-23 in Bonn last December I had a front-row view to a shouting match between Governor Jerry Brown and Journalist Amy Goodman, who later aired the confrontation on Democracy Now!. Goodman started by saying she thought indigenous rights activists had a point in disrupting an address by Brown by chanting “keep it in the ground.” She mischaracterized something Brown said and led with that because it seemed to show that Brown was racist. He looked at her like she was nuts. Was she serious? Their discussion became heated as Brown tried to defend himself by asking deeper questions than Goodman was equipped to handle. Most viewers of Democracy Now! saw Goodman’s version, that Brown was prevaricating by refusing to walk back racist comments. Having watched in real time, I sided with Brown.
BROWN: “We have the toughest rules on oil. I don’t think we should shut down oil in California and then take it from Venezuela or take it from somewhere else where the rules are even worse. We have to stop the cars. We have to get them electric. We have to get public transportation. We need better land use. We have to solve the problem and I understand because we deal with protest all the time. But California, we are cutting our oil consumption, we are cutting our greenhouse gases, that is what we have to do. Not just a slogan or a march-around or talk-talk. I am talking about reality. And California has the strongest oil-reduction rules in America. We are the leader. So if someone says, ‘get rid of oil,’ oh, you mean ‘get rid of our cars?’ If you got rid of cars you’d have a revolution and there would be shooting in the streets.”
GOODMAN: “They were calling for a ban on fracking like New York and Maryland….”
BROWN: “They were calling for a ban on all oil production.”
GOODMAN: “But also fracking. What is your position on that?”
BROWN: “I don’t think it makes sense to import oil by train. I think its very dangerous. And people who say, ‘Hey, don’t take oil out of your ground, bring it by train or by boat,’ that is far more dangerous. The answer is stop using oil in buses and cars and trucks. You need a renewable vehicle grid. That is the answer and I think to say anything else is not intellectually honest and is not helpful.”
GOODMAN: “Are you considering a ban on fracking?”
BROWN: “We are considering a ban on oil over the next 25 years.”
The November 26, 2018 issue of Nature Climate Change reveals just how far Brown is prepared to go, and when he, or his successors, may get there. Hint: It won’t take 25 years. With the political winds at its back blowing stronger than a fire-nado, California has charted a course to arrest its oil production in just 11 years.
“Limiting fossil fuel production as the next big step in climate policy” by Peter Erickson, Michael Lazarus & Georgia Piggot takes California as a case study to show how the state’s Climate 2030 Action Plan goes beyond an electric transportation grid (and lest we forget, the devastating recent Camp Fire may have been sparked by overloaded transmission lines) to the first State to enact a leave-it-in-the-ground supply side strategy.
Brown was right when he told Goodman that California’s economy depended on oil. For most of the past century, Californians have used more total gasoline, diesel and jet fuel each year than any other US state — a distinction only recently eclipsed by Texas, in 2014. California was also the first- or second-largest US crude oil producer from 1940 to 1980, and now ranks fifth behind Permian Basin, Marcellus or Bakken states using short-lived enhanced recovery techniques. The state issues about 2,500 new oil well permits each year, slaking its thirst for 600 to 700 million barrels per year, with a resulting 300 to 350 annual megatons of CO2 emissions, steady for the past 25 years.
The challenge is not available supply, but social acceptance, as the NCC study reports:
Pushback from incumbents accompanies any significant social or economic transition, and is to be expected whether policymakers limit supply or enact more comprehensive demand-side policies. For example, California oil producers have put up strong resistance to both supply- and demand-side action, in both cases using many of the same arguments that pit a safe climate against jobs and economy.
Many of the same critiques, however, could apply to demand-side policy: the effectiveness of any individual demand-side policy may also be small compared to a country’s national emissions, and those policies can also be diminished by leakage, or subject to backlash.
If California could simply stop issuing new oil well permits, seemingly a straightforward and administratively feasible move that requires no action by the legislature, it would reduce 2030 oil production by about 70% and have a climate effect equal to all the other actions California is currently taking to reduce emissions, combined. It would also raise the world price, and that could have knock-on reduction effects that ripple outward.
Two months ago, when the Secretary of Interior informed California of its decision to open up national forests, parks and monuments to oil and gas exploration, Governor Brown wrote back: “open[ing] up new areas of the state to oil and gas production … is contrary to the course California has set to combat climate change and to meet its share of the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.”
While the indigenous peoples’ climate activists who shut down Brown’s talk in Bonn were wrong to have done so, they may ultimately have prevailed in their argument. California has listened and is doing the right thing, as quickly as humanly possible.