California Governor Gavin Newsom said last Friday his state will stop issuing new permits for fracking in 2024. The embattled governor—likely facing a recall election this fall—also directed the California Air Resource Board to study pathways to phasing out oil production by 2045. The announcement makes California the world’s largest oil and gas producer to commit to this kind of phaseout.
It’s a remarkable move, championed for decades by the state’s muscular climate and environmental justice groups. And yet many of those same groups argue the ban Newsom has announced doesn’t go far or fast enough to limit warming and the local health impacts of extraction. And a forthcoming U.N. study reviewed by The New York Times seems to agree with them.
The Times’ Hiroko Tabuchi reported Saturday that the study on methane emissions—slated to be published next month by the U.N. Environment Program and Climate and Clean Air Coalition—finds that “unless there is significant deployment of unproven technologies capable of pulling greenhouse gases out of the air—expanding the use of natural gas is incompatible with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
When burned, natural gas is about half as carbon-intensive as coal. It packs a much bigger punch, though, in terms of methane, emissions of which are now ubiquitous across gas supply chains. While shorter-lived in the atmosphere, methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. That means building more gas infrastructure, as politicians on both sides of the aisle have championed as a replacement for coal, could spike emissions overall, inking contracts that would lock in continued methane emissions for decades to come, driving temperatures ever higher.
Phasing out methane emissions is admittedly a large task. Gas is a by-product of oil production, and without infrastructure to use or transport the by-product, it gets burned off into the atmosphere at alarming rates through what’s known as “flaring.” Where storage and transportation infrastructure does exist, it leaks frequently. Domestic methane gas production has increased by 90 percent since 2005, spurred on by the Wall Street–aided expansion of hydraulic natural gas fracturing. Atmospheric methane levels and U.S. liquefied natural gas exports both reached record highs last month. Throughout the shale boom, methane emissions have been loosely regulated, and—experts contend—grossly underreported. That was even more true after the Trump administration peeled back already minimal restrictions on them. If Democrats win an upcoming vote to undo that change, methane regulations would be Biden’s first successful reinstatement of climate rules rolled back by the previous administration.
Global warming isn’t the only problem with gas production, though. Pollution carries huge risks, as well. Climate and environmental justice groups have campaigned for a rule that would bar drilling operations near schools, playgrounds, hospitals, and other sensitive areas where it can drive increased rates of asthma, cancer, and other health impacts. One 2016 study, for example, found that people under 24 living within a half-mile of Colorado gas fields “were at higher risk of respiratory, neurological, and other health impacts and had a higher lifetime risk for cancer than those who lived at farther distances.” The U.N. report reviewed by the Times found that methane restrictions could prevent 250,000 premature deaths and more than 750,000 asthma-related hospital visits each year after 2030. Harvard researchers recently found that fossil fuels were responsible for eight million deaths worldwide in 2018.
Newsom’s announcement came after a more ambitious bill to ban fracking and establish such a setback rule was defeated by a bipartisan committee vote in the California legislature, without the governor’s support. “We have been asking for setbacks for years, and every day that we allow the inherently dangerous practice of neighborhood drilling is an assault on our lungs, and it is an assault on justice,” Cesar Aguirre of the Central California Environmental Justice Network said in a statement emailed to reporters on Friday. “The first step of this directive and plan should be to create minimum 2,500-foot health and safety setbacks to protect frontline communities—that’s what the environmental justice community deserves.”
While recent news from Sacramento falls well short of what’s needed, Newsom has—under pressure—picked up a tool that the Biden administration has so far left on the table: policy to phase out fossil fuels directly. To date, the White House’s approach has mainly emphasized the investment and jobs opportunity that tackling the climate crisis could create, via industrial policy to scale up domestic clean energy production and manufacturing for low-carbon technologies like electric cars. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has echoed these ideas, while largely picking up fossil fuel industry talking points that posit no contradiction between capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius and an indefinite future for oil and gas development.
“There is a future for fossil fuels, and let me tell you why. The Department of Energy and other entities [are] doing research on how to control carbon, carbon dioxide management,” she told KDKA Pittsburgh’s Jon Delano earlier this month, adding that fracking “can be done safely” so long as the right technology is in place. In recent months, the oil and gas industry has similarly cast methane as an eminently solvable problem, even supporting direct regulations to constrain it alongside privately managed reforms through the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. Any talk of a transition is vaguely defined and far off in the future.
Last year’s Production Gap report, meanwhile, released by the U.N. Environment Program, the Stockholm Environmental Institute, and several other groups, found that fossil fuel production would need to decrease by 6 percent each year between 2020 and 2030 to keep warming below 1.5 degrees, the same goal the Biden administration has frequently repeated. Currently, the world is now on track to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels needed to meet that goal.
Some kind of limit on fossil fuel production needs to make its way to mainstream national political debate, and fast. Insofar as Newsom’s proposal speeds that process, it’s good news. The weakness and lateness of the proposal say a lot about just how effectively fossil fuel companies have sidelined this debate so far.