Despite bold promises, our Governor has continuously sided with oil and gas.
It’s been two years since Gavin Newsom was elected California’s Governor, and the Golden State’s outlook on climate and the environment has never been grimmer. Despite bold promises, Newsom has failed to protect California’s air, water, soil, and people, instead, marking his two-year anniversary with repeated scandals and crises.
Amid climate-fueled mega-fires, the COVID-19 pandemic, uprisings for racial justice, and an unprecedented downturn of oil markets, Newsom has remained fiercely loyal to oil and gas profits, willingly putting Californians — mainly communities of color — and our collective future on the chopping block. He has been tested and, unfortunately, found severely wanting.
We must hold Governor Newsom accountable for abysmal failures on fracking, oil and gas, and Aliso Canyon.
Increased fracking permits and lobbyist friends
In 2019, Newsom shocked environmentalists when data showed he issued more oil and gas permits than Governor Brown had during his final year in office. Newsom, who campaigned on banning fracking and stopping unsafe drilling practices, did the exact opposite.
In July, Newsom came under fire after Consumer Watchdog revealed top CA oil regulators were making money off the oil corporations receiving new fracking permits — the top company being Aera Energy. Meanwhile, the Chevron Cymric Oil Spill boldly underlined the devastation the oil industry can wreak from just one failure as thick crude leaked for 113 days in Kern County. Feeling the pressure from both crises, Newsom fired the top oil and gas regulator and issued a de-facto moratorium on fracking permits that same month.
But the fracking moratorium didn’t last long. Two weeks into California’s lockdown as the world soared past one million coronavirus cases, Newsom quietly lifted the moratorium and issued 24 new fracking permits. This was the beginning of a pattern. For the rest of 2020, Newsom issued fracking permits when we were the most distracted.
The Governor quietly approved 12 permits days after George Floyd’s murder, and another 12 right before the July 4th holiday. Both Aera Energy and Chevron, the same two companies put on notice the year before, directly benefited. In total, with more approvals happening over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years’, Newsom approved 83 fracking permits in 2020 for 608 individual fracking events, according to state regulators at CalGEM (California Geologic Energy Management Division).
And that’s just a taste of Newsom’s disregard for environmental justice and climate protections. Since being elected, Newsom has approved 7,625 oil and gas well permits. NewsomWellWatch.com reports 40% of those were approved in 2020 alone (and totals will go up once the fourth quarter can be calculated). Despite his initial moratorium on fracking, Newsom now insists he lacks the authority to prohibit fracking or stop new oil and gas permits. In fact, he does have the authority. It appears he’d prefer to keep his oil friends happy, especially as he heads into a tumultuous election season.
Newsom’s loyalties have proven controversial, especially when he broke COVID protocols to attend a $350 per plate birthday party for longtime best friend and Aera Energy lobbyist Jason Kinney at The French Laundry. On top of that, Newsom just appointed a new Chief of Staff, Jim DeBoo, with strong financial connections to Chevron. It’s no wonder these two oil companies are scoring big as their lobbyists are close to Newsom while the pandemic continues to assault Californians.
Setbacks from oil wells could save lives today, especially during a pandemic
Newsom has also failed his pledge to stop unsafe oil drilling in California, which is already an empty assurance, considering the continuously mounting evidence that all oil and gas is unsafe. Haven’t our fossil-fueled climate apocalypse, record-setting mega-fires, and auburn skies proved that point? Oil and gas drilling must be phased out. Today, environmental justice communities are asking for a sensible 2500-foot setback between existing oil wells and the spaces where people live, work, and play. Drilling next door is even deadlier now that California is struggling to survive COVID. The virus kills someone every thirty seconds in the U.S., and Harvard studies show the death rate is exasperated by even a small increase in particulate matter — exposure that comes from fossil fuel pollution. The toxic emissions of oil drilling next door to homes, schools, hospitals, and churches are literally a death sentence for our communities. Yet Gavin Newsom refuses to act.
Last year, it seemed like Newsom was finally paying attention. In November 2019, he issued a press release that called for the state to make new rules on oil and gas setbacks. It kicked off a draft rule making process that included seven public hearings in English and Spanish. With our allies at Last Chance Alliance, Food & Water Watch collectively submitted 40,000 public comments supporting 2500-foot setbacks. Over a year later, nothing has happened but more delays. Regulators have dragged their feet, while the lives of 7.37 million Californians living within a mile of an oil well are threatened.
Failed promises on Aliso Canyon
The SoCalGas Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in the north San Fernando Valley near Porter Ranch was home to the worst gas blowout in U.S. history, spewing 100,000 metric tonnes of methane for four months and displacing more than 8,000 families. People and pets got sick and died during this public health and ecological disaster and are still sickened today from the field’s daily emissions.
Time and time again Newsom promised community members, especially fierce moms Jane Fowler and Deirdre Bolona, that he would expedite the shutdown of this dangerous facility. Two years into his term, SoCalGas has instead ramped up use of Aliso Canyon by 3000%.
Newsom has shown his promises are meaningless. His actions show his true allegiances are with the oil and gas industry, not the people. During Newsom’s campaign for Governor, Sempra Energy (SoCalGas’ parent company) contributed $31,200 to his campaign, providing a lucrative incentive to keep the facility valued at $769 million operational.
Despite Newsom’s failed leadership, in 2020 communities won monumental victories
Building on years of community organizing and determination to protect our climate, water, and health, local activists in 2020 saw big wins in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties.
In Culver City, after eight long years of organizing against oil drilling in the Inglewood Oil Field, the community finally shifted power at the Council level to move forward with a phaseout of oil drilling within the City.
In Los Angeles, after years of delay on setbacks, L.A. City Council’s Environment, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice Committee voted unanimously to pass a motion directing the City Attorney to draft an ordinance declaring oil and gas extraction sites non-conforming land uses, following Culver City’s lead. This is the first step in a battle that will continue into 2021, putting L.A. on a path to phase out drilling.
In Santa Barbara County, communities fought back against the proposal to drill more than 700 new oil wells in Cat Canyon Oil Field in Santa Maria. All three companies planning to drill withdrew their applications, including Aera Energy.
Last but not least, in Ventura County after two years of organizing, the Ventura County Supervisors voted to place 2500-foot setbacks for oil wells between schools and 1500 feet between homes. This is the first setback of its kind in the state and country, and the Board of Supervisors has committed to increasing the setbacks for homes in the near future. That future is secure after the election of Carmen Ramirez to the Ventura Board of Supervisors.
California voters will have a real choice to rebuke Newsom and pick a new champion for the environment and climate justice soon
Governor Newsom needs to turn his horrible legacy around by using his authority to ban fracking, stop new oil and gas drilling, institute 2500–foot setbacks immediately and shut down Aliso Canyon. We have work to do. 2021 is a critical year to speak up and hold Newsom accountable, and it starts now.
As Newsom looks to shore up support across California, we’ll be ready to make climate change and his record on oil and gas key issues for him. Politicians like Newsom need to understand they can no longer get away with lying about their promises. In the midst of catastrophic climate change, economic hardship, and communities crying out for justice and healing, we have a brilliant opportunity to create a greener economy that leaves no one out. We can recover from COVID together. And we can transition away from fossil fuels to protect each other and our children.
Alex Nagy is the California director of Food & Water Action.