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Drilling for Oil While California Burns

Democrats can’t go green while continuing to green-light fossil fuel production.

A fire burns in Oroville, California.
A fire burns in Oroville, California.

Democrats now control every branch of government in California, which is home to what are arguably the most ambitious climate policies in the country. California is currently burning. Some 900 wildfires throughout the state have painted its skies an eerie, dull orange. The images are a warning of the dangers of climate denial, as global warming turns trees into tinder. But they should also be a warning to anyone who thinks electing Democrats is the be-all and end-all for saving the planet.

Since Donald Trump’s election and the disastrous environmental policies that followed, it’s been easy to see the next step in climate politics as a simple imperative: Defeat the GOP. By this metric, California is a success story: Old-school climate denial isn’t a meaningful force in the state’s politics. While there are plenty of Republicans in California’s congressional delegation, that group is headlined by liberal stalwarts like Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein, who’ve proudly urged their colleagues to “Believe Science.” Before leaving office, former Governor Jerry Brown—who’s toured the world as a climate champion—signed a bill committing the state’s power sector to zero-carbon electricity use by 2045 and an executive order stating an ambition for California to have a carbon-free economy along the same timeline. In his two years as governor, Gavin Newsom has largely continued this trend.

But even as California has dramatically increased its renewable power, it’s continued to hum along as a major fossil fuel producer. As solar panels blanket the Hollywood Hills, pumpjacks still bob up and down in urban oilfields a few miles away; and Chevron’s refinery in Richmond continues to spew cancerous toxins onto people who are incentivized to buy electric cars. The Western States Petroleum Association—a regional trade lobby for the oil and gas industry, and generous Democratic Party donor—consulted with Jerry Brown on the state’s cap and trade legislation, the language of which bore a striking resemblance to draft text WSPA circulated around the state capitol. Gavin Newsom has approved 190 percent more oil and gas drilling in the first half of 2020 than in his first six months in office. He’s green-lighted 48 new permits for hydraulic natural gas fracturing just since April; according to the Center for Biological Diversity, he’s also approved drilling permits for 1,400 new oil and gas wells so far this year. 

As Steve Horn recently reported, it was California’s Democrats who, this past August in a state Senate committee, once again killed regulations requiring a 2,500-foot setback between new oil wells and playgrounds, homes, and schools. The state has been alarmingly gentle with PG&E, the Northern California utility found legally responsible for several blazes in the last few years. Nor is the Golden State an exemplar for how to navigate the effects of climate change that it’s already facing: To fight its fires, California depends largely on inmates, who are still mostly ineligible to work as firefighters after their release. Kamala Harris’s office defended the policy while she served as California’s attorney general, arguing that expanding early release programs would deplete the number of prisoners on hand to fight fires.

California’s emissions and fossil fuel production alone haven’t caused the global warming fueling the state’s fires, of course. But its de facto “all of the above” climate policy—leaving plenty of room for fossil fuels as it builds out renewables—is a dangerous model for Democrats nationwide to keep following.  

This isn’t an invitation for false equivalence. After nearly four years of unhinged GOP regulatory rollbacks and fossil fuel boosterism, on top of decades of denial and delay, there’s no case to be made that Democrats and Republicans bear equal blame for rising temperatures: The GOP offers a fast track to climate destruction. A report released last month from the consultancy Wood McKenzie predicts that reelecting Trump would “mark the end to any hopes” for decarbonizing the power sector in the United States by midcentury. In our current two-party system, and with current Republican intransigence on this issue, getting Donald Trump out of office, winning durable Democratic majorities in Congress, and chipping away at the GOP’s hold over the federal court system are all necessary conditions for averting runaway climate chaos. But they’re also entirely insufficient.

One of the more sinister effects of Trump’s environmental revanchism is setting a disturbingly low bar for what constitutes climate progress. Climate deniers have been an easy foil. Gestures like rejoining the Paris Agreement have served as a stand-in for more meaningful conversations about what it’ll actually take to keep emissions down and help communities make life-saving adaptations. As the fires blazed, Newsom took to Twitter. “These pictures cry out for change,” he captioned two pictures of California’s orange skies. “Climate change is REAL. So please—VOTE.” In another Tweet he urged, “We do not have time to deny the reality of climate change.”

Our warming world mostly isn’t controlled by climate deniers, though. It does, for the most part, run on fossil fuels, which constitute a far bigger threat to planetary well-being than the few cranks still claiming that global warming is a hoax—a position oil CEOs abandoned years ago. The world is now consuming more energy than it ever has, and coal, oil, and gas continue to account for about 85 percent of that consumption worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency, which predicts that the U.S. will account for 80 percent of the growth in oil production through 2030, and 30 percent of the growth in fossil gas. Meeting the ambitious goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, to cap warming at “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), means actively winding down fossil fuel production. 

Establishment Democrats don’t deny climate change. But they’re very much in denial about which business models need to end in order to curb it. The same year Barack Obama signed onto the Paris Agreement, he also lifted a long-standing ban on crude oil exports, fulfilling his own “all of the above” energy strategy. As he proudly boasted after leaving office, U.S. fossil fuel production rose faster during his administration than in any other since World War II. And despite the fossil fuel industry donors’ fealty to the GOP, it’s been Democratic presidents during that time who have boosted fossil fuel production the most, on average. Even progressives today remain mostly unwilling to challenge the power of oil and gas executives with real constraints on their ability to keep digging up the stuff helping light the planet on fire. 

For the Democratic National Committee this summer, pledging to end fossil fuel subsidies in the party platform proved to be a bridge too far—initial pledges were retracted. The conservative, industry-friendly leadership of a few labor unions has used workers as a shield for its bosses against even basic regulations, with Democrats all too ready to adopt the position that fossil fuel industries must be protected to protect fossil fuel jobs. The unholy alliance has pushed unproven technologies as a means of indefinitely extending the life of extractive industries, rather than accepting that these industries must end and planning well-paid and low-carbon livelihoods for their employees.

Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan pledges to bring prodigious amounts of renewable energy online, green the power sector by 2035, and create thousands of green manufacturing jobs. It’s the most ambitious climate plan ever put out by a presidential candidate in the U.S., and it still leaves the door wide open to continued fossil fuel expansion. Going green domestically only goes so far if coal, oil, and gas continue to be shipped halfway around the world from U.S. ports and fossil fuel producers are given carte blanche to keep drilling at home and abroad. Until Democrats are willing to work on both sides of the emissions ledger—building more of the good while shutting down the bad—orange skies in deep blue California will continue to feel like an unsettling preview for the entire nation, even if Trump loses in November.