Energy & Environment

To resist Trump’s climate assault, California must curb oil production

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President Trump’s departure from the Paris climate agreement was a serious blow to the international battle against global warming. But if Trump’s reckless retreat has a silver lining, it’s the stirring pledges we’ve heard from California Gov. Jerry Brown and other state leaders determined to carry on the climate fight.

“Donald Trump has absolutely chosen the wrong course,” the governor said after the president’s Paris announcement. And, as the leader of the world’s fifth-largest economy, Brown quickly met with the president of China about reducing greenhouse pollution.

{mosads}But while Brown dons the climate hero cape on the global stage, his actions in California reveal a more complex story. One crucial piece of the puzzle is missing here. To show true climate leadership, the governor must commit to keeping dirty fossil fuels in the ground.


To many people’s surprise, California is America’s third-largest oil-producing state, with the country’s third-largest oil-refining capacity. And oil produced here is some of the dirtiest in the world: A good portion of California’s crude is more carbon intensive — worse for the climate — than the notorious Canadian tar sands.

Ominously, the oil industry in California is gearing up for lots of new drilling and a massive increase in carbon pollution. A recent analysis by Kern County, already the state’s most petroleum-saturated region, predicted the oil industry there will nearly double greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. 

Yet instead of curbing oil production during our climate crisis, California regulators are helping drilling to expand.

Brown’s officials want oilfields producing some of the state’s most carbon-intensive crude to get so-called “aquifer exemptions” from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. These exemptions allow oil companies to dump toxic waste fluids into underground water, and they facilitate more drilling.

In San Luis Obispo County, state regulators want the Trump administration to give federal approval for an aquifer exemption that would pave the way for hundreds of new wells in the Arroyo Grande oilfield — and a potential 10-fold increase in production of this carbon-intensive oil. 

Brown sometimes argues that Californians drive too much for the state to reduce oil production. But that dangerous reliance on gasoline-powered cars rests in part on the world’s overproduction of petroleum. To keep fossil-fueled cars as cheap to operate as possible, we’re drilling for oil like there’s no tomorrow — if we keep it up, there might not be.

We must do better.

To prevent climate disaster within this century, we need to aim beyond the goals of the Paris agreement, which only commits signatories to capping warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels. Science and ethics require keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

That can’t be done unless we stop extracting new fossil fuels. A 2016 Oil Change International report found that just burning reserves from currently operating oil and gas fields would already take the world beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius tipping point.  

California alone can’t bring us below the 1.5 degree Celsius target, but we can be the leader and example the world needs at this pivotal moment.

We can stop carving out legal loopholes for oil companies. We can join other states in banning fracking and other dangerous oil industry techniques. We can stop converting aquifers into oil waste dumpsites. And we can continue transforming our energy sector, making it truly clean and renewable.

So the opportunity is yours, Gov. Brown, to seize this golden moment for the Golden State. Step up and send the message that true climate leaders keep fossil fuels in the ground. 

 Jean Su is the associate conservation director for The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy organization. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Donald Trump Environment Jean Su oil production

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