California has long touted its reputation as a green pioneer in the U.S. Its lawmakers and regulators have significantly restricted oil exploration in recent years and have increased efforts to decarbonize and introduce renewables to the state. However, recent accusations around California’s leaking methane, legislator donations from Big Oil, and the state’s ongoing backing of natural gas have made many question the merit of its status as a clean energy state.
California has announced several plans to curb its oil operations in recent years. Earlier in 2022, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously for the phasing out of drilling in the city, using $165 million in federal funds to seal abandoned wells across the state. This followed a 2018 report by the Los Angeles County Department of Health that found oil and gas sites located in densely populated areas to be detrimental to public health.
Last week, the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission agreed to an ordinance banning the drilling of new oil and gas wells in various unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. But it received criticism for not including the controversial Inglewood Oil Field, an area with a large population, in its ban. However, oil industry experts highlight the ongoing need to import crude to the oil-rich region and the reliance the state has had on Russia in the past, suggesting that sourcing energy locally will contribute to greater energy security.
Amid criticism over environmental damage, with a recent report revealing Texas, Ohio, and California as the states most under threat by oil and gas pollution, California must tread carefully if it hopes to maintain its green reputation. An interactive oil and gas threat map highlights the main areas at risk, which include scattered areas across the state.
In addition, the Government of California has recently come under fire for failing to plug oil and gas wells, with 21 oil wells found to be leaking high levels of methane. This news came as a shock to the public that had been promised a 40 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030. California's top oil regulator, Uduak-Joe Ntuk, was accused of lying about the severity of the leaks, located near Bakersfield. Although the state was quick to respond to the issue, putting pressure on California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) to plug the leaks and vowing to invest $300 million in the closing of any other methane leaks.
And just this week, media reports suggested that as many as 58 Californian legislators each took over $10,000 from “questionable sources”, including major oil and gas firms. A ‘Dirty Dollars’ project report from the environmental organization the Sierra Club states, “This election season, polluting industries have already spent more than $1.8 million in contributions to candidates’ campaigns.” This has made many question the motives of major political figures in the state, as oil and gas operations look as strong as ever.
And when it comes to natural gas, California is planning to back it in a big way, despite the state’s reputation as a forerunner in renewables. Much like the EU, California sees gas as key to a clean energy transition away from fossil fuels. Pacific Gas & Electric, the operator of the state’s largest utility, announced this month that it plans to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 while maintaining its natural gas use. This, the report vaguely suggests, will be done by introducing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies to operations.
Not to forget, millions of dollars in clean air grants from a regional air regulator, aimed at reducing air pollution caused by emissions, have gone into the development of natural gas projects in a movement away from more-polluting alternatives. A significant proportion of these funds has been used to help private businesses switch their old diesel truck fleets to newer diesel engines or natural gas trucks and infrastructure. The regulator suggested that electric vehicles were simply too expensive, making natural gas the cleanest alternative.
Despite ex-governor Jerry Brown pledging to lead the U.S. response to climate change on a 2017 trip to Europe; California’s 2045 net-zero pledge; and a 2035 ban on the sale of new ICE cars, several of the states’ long-standing policies contradict these aims. State funding for the California natural gas vehicle partnership, established in 2002, which stated the need for “greater deployment of natural gas vehicles in California”, continues to this day. The partnership works with the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, which is supported by oil and gas producers such as Chevron, BP, and Shell. This is a coalition that has fought against several climate policies, such as a 2020 lawsuit in opposition of the air resources board for failing to consider the role gas vehicles could play in mitigating emissions.
There is no denying that California has invested significantly in the development of its renewable energy sector in recent years. But several recent controversies have led the public to question how dedicated the state actually is to its green future. Failures to protect environmental safety and public health, continuing support for oil operations, and the reinvigoration of the natural gas industry demonstrate California’s ongoing dependence on fossil fuels.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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