California Had a Watershed Climate Year, But Time Is Running Out

California made historic investments in climate measures this year, as state leaders warned of current and escalating climate risks. 

“We’re dealing with such extremes that all our modeling, even updated modeling, needs to be thrown out,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom when he signed more than 40 bills to fight climate change in September. “The hots are just so much hotter. The dries are so much drier.” 

No other jurisdiction in the world is doing what California is doing, he said of the ambitious suite of laws underpinning his California Climate Commitment. 

Environmental advocates cheered many of the measures. But some also warned that the oil industry’s determination to keep a stranglehold on climate policy threatens to stall or reverse hard-won gains.

“This year saw some of the biggest progress in climate policy, and equitable climate policy, that we’ve seen in a long time,” said Ellie Cohen, chief executive officer of The Climate Center, a nonprofit dedicated to rapidly reducing climate pollution. Still, she’d like to see more ambitious targets.

Hollin Kretzmann, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, agreed it was a “watershed year” for California’s climate fight, pointing to a landmark law protecting neighborhoods from oil and gas pollution and Newsom’s proposed penalty to curb oil industry “profiteering” at the gas pump. 

But the governor is being undermined by the oil industry and his own oil and gas regulators, said Kretzmann. “They’re still approving permits for new wells even as we’re supposed to be moving away from fossil fuels.” 

As one state agency continues to sanction the extraction of fossil fuels, another has been documenting the consequences of failing to limit climate pollution for more than a decade.

Scientists with California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment painted a grim picture of the consequences of an accelerating climate crisis in their fourth scientific assessment of climate change indicators, released last month. 

Among a litany of troubling firsts: record-high temperatures, record-low snowpack, exceptional drought, unprecedented marine heat waves and wildfires, disappearing glaciers. These extremes are endangering California’s residents and environment by shifting the range of birds, mammals and even forests, radically decreasing salmon populations, reducing sea lion births, boosting the abundance of crop pests, increasing the extent and frequency of algal blooms, exacerbating human health threats from extreme heat, wildfire smoke, unsafe drinking water and vector-borne diseases like valley fever, among many others.

As if on cue, the report followed a 10-day heat wave that shattered nearly 1,000 temperature records along the West Coast—a year after half of California’s largest wildfires in 70 years burned nearly 4.5 million acres across the state in back to back seasons.

Citing these growing risks, California earmarked a record $54 billion for climate action this fall “that exceeds what most countries are spending,” the governor’s office said.

A photo illustration shows a background of electric power infrastructure with an Apple iPhone showing an Emergency Alert notification from CalOES urging the public to conserve energy to protect health and safety as the electricity grid is strained during a heat wave in Los Angeles, California on Sept. 6, 2022. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
A photo illustration shows a background of electric power infrastructure with an Apple iPhone showing an Emergency Alert notification from CalOES urging the public to conserve energy to protect health and safety as the electricity grid is strained during a heat wave in Los Angeles, California on Sept. 6, 2022. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

New laws require California to achieve carbon neutrality no later than 2045 and get 90 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2035; study the feasibility of capturing and removing carbon pollution from the air while prohibiting its use for enhanced oil recovery; advance nature-based solutions; and establish 3,200-foot buffer zones between oil and gas wells and homes, schools, clinics and other public places.

Cohen believes a target of carbon neutrality 23 years from now isn’t soon enough. 

Scientists now say every fraction of a degree of warming is significantly worse than the same fraction before. 

“It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” she said. “Unless we treat it like the emergency that it is.”

A Reckoning with Water

California is experiencing the driest 22 years in more than a millennium, fueled by warmer, drier conditions that have exposed critical weaknesses in the way the state stores and manages water.

Californians will have to learn to thrive with less water, experts with the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, warned in a November report. “Even if we do everything right,” they concluded, “water supplies are likely to decline.”

A combination of outdated laws and bad assumptions has fractured the state’s most important water supply systems: the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a crucial ecological and drinking water resource for half the state’s residents, and the Colorado Basin, the lifeblood of farms and cities in Southern California.

“We’ve taken the important step of acknowledging that climate change is here,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with PPIC’s Water Policy Center and co-author of the report. “What we do not have are policies backed by law to help us deal with what’s happening so quickly right now.”

California’s “modern” water rights system is 100 years old. And the laws governing water quality and its storage and distribution for irrigation and drinking water predate the understanding of climate change and its impacts.

Plus, California’s water system is based on “really bad assumptions” about how much water the environment and Californians need, Mount said.

Water managers and experts assumed that taking about 2 million acre feet of water out of the Delta (one acre foot would cover an acre with a foot of water) would leave enough for the ecosystem, about 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland, Mount said. “We got that wrong by about 100 percent.” 

For decades farmers made up for surface supply shortfalls by overpumping groundwater and severely depleting aquifers, a situation that’s accelerating with the megadrought, new research shows. Farmers had to fallow 400,000 acres of farmland this year while wetland habitat for migratory birds is shrinking along with California’s iconic salmon and smelt populations.

Historically, when drought hit the Delta, Southern California could tap the Colorado’s storage reserves, Mount said. “No more.”

Thanks to the state’s failure to adjust to dwindling water supplies, Mount said, “we broke our groundwater system, we broke our surface supply here and we broke the Colorado.”

Meanwhile, close to 1,500 wells ran dry this year. And though California became the first state in the nation to recognize the “human right” to water a decade ago, roughly 1 million people, mostly in isolated rural communities, lack access to reliable supplies of safe drinking water. 

“The problem is getting bigger as we try to address it because of climate change,” said Gregory Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Legislators passed a bill in September to help low-income Californians pay their water bill, but Newsom vetoed it, citing a lack of sustainable, ongoing funding.

Pierce said he understands the challenge of identifying funding with a recession looming. But if California can’t fund an affordability program for a service it considers a human right, he said, “I don’t really understand what we’re doing as a state.”

No Time for ‘Screwing Around’ 

When Newsom signed the sweeping climate package in September, he gestured toward a ring of oil refineries in the distance. “We’re not interested in investing in the industries that have created the problems that we’re trying to mitigate,” he said. “That’s just profoundly ridiculous.” 

Last summer Newsom asked the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, to assess the feasibility of moving the state’s 2045 carbon neutrality target up a decade. But the agency, which regulates greenhouse gases, decided the accelerated target would prove too expensive. CARB’s final “scoping plan” for reducing climate pollution and achieving carbon neutrality, released two weeks ago, retains the 2045 target.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during the climate agreement event jointly held by West Coast leaders on Oct. 6, 2022 in San Francisco, California, Credit: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during the climate agreement event jointly held by West Coast leaders on Oct. 6, 2022 in San Francisco, California, Credit: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The plan relies on reducing emissions as well as technological solutions, including capturing, storing and removing carbon from the air, to meet its targets.

Environmental justice advocates applauded many aspects of CARB’s roadmap, such as expanding mass transit, boosting offshore wind instead of gas power plants and an interagency plan to phase down oil production. 

But the interagency workgroup could take “years and years” to figure out how to phase out fossil fuels, said Catherine Garoupa, co-chair of the agency’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, or EJAC, and executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition.

And the agency’s “decide, announce, and defend” approach to policy making, EJAC members charged, has failed to address community groups’ ongoing objections to policies that allow fossil fuel companies to rely on nascent capture carbon technologies and pay to pollute instead of reducing toxic emissions in already overburdened neighborhoods.

The scoping plan was developed in a “full public process” that incorporated more than 60 of the EJAC’s recommendations, said CARB spokesperson Dave Clegern. He said requests that weren’t included were beyond the authority of the agencies, economically or technically infeasible or beyond the scope of the planning process.

The Climate Center’s Cohen believes CARB’s plan relies too much on engineered carbon removal while minimizing the potential of natural lands like wetlands and working lands like farms and ranches to sequester carbon in soils and vegetation and reduce agricultural emissions by omitting climate-polluting fertilizers.

The prospect of capturing carbon from smokestacks is contentious because community groups are rightly concerned that the technology may let hazardous air pollutants escape, said Seth Shonkoff, executive director of PSE Healthy Energy. Although anecdotal data suggests that units capture both carbon and deadly emissions from smokestacks, he said, “there have been almost no peer-reviewed scientific studies to demonstrate that that’s actually the case.”

Shonkoff called it “mission critical” to scrutinize carbon capture technologies and their effects on air quality and health. 

Right now, there’s nothing to point to and “everyone’s just screaming at each other,” he said. “But there’s no time for screwing around too much longer.”

Standing Up for Science

The climate crisis is endangering the health and well-being of California’s residents, state scientists said in their climate indicators report. This is especially true for the nearly 3 million Californians who live near noxious drilling sites.

Many studies show that living within 3,200 feet of drilling operations causes respiratory problems and poor birth outcomes associated with increased risk of death, developmental disorders and life-long health problems. Some studies show harm at even greater distances.

“To protect the health of communities living near oil and gas development, integrated strategies including setbacks, engineering controls, and consistent environmental monitoring are needed to reduce health risks,” a blue-ribbon panel of health experts convened by California’s Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, reported last year.

The panel’s work helped inform Senate Bill 1137, landmark legislation to protect communities from oil and gas drilling, said PSE Healthy Energy’s Shonkoff, who co-chaired the scientific advisory panel.

SB 1137 mandated not just the 3,200-foot buffer zone between drilling and places people live, work and play, but also created mitigation zones where oil and gas operators will have to control and monitor their emissions, measures Shonkoff called “unprecedented nationally and perhaps globally.”

Environmental groups fought for years to safeguard neighborhoods, but oil industry lobbying killed two previous legislative efforts. 

“Even a few months ago, many people didn’t expect us to have the nation’s largest setbacks in place that protect frontline communities from oil and gas pollution,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Kretzmann.

But no sooner had the governor signed the historic law than the oil industry pushed a ballot measure to repeal it.

Canvassers were telling voters that signing the petition would help protect people from neighborhood oil and gas wells, when in fact it would do the opposite, as Inside Climate News reported.

The referendum’s backer, the California Independent Petroleum Association, or CIPA, announced Dec. 12 that it had collected enough signatures to qualify for the 2024 ballot, which state officials must verify. CIPA and neighborhood drilling companies have spent more than $20 million since October to overturn the science-based law.

The Center for Biological Diversity recently joined dozens of environmental and community groups urging Gov. Newsom and CalGEM to issue an immediate moratorium on permits for new or expanded drilling operations within 3,200 feet of homes, schools and other public places. The groups also urged oil and gas regulators to complete its rulemaking to safeguard communities within the buffer zones. 

CalGEM announced on Dec. 19 its intention to adopt emergency rules for SB 1137, a move environmental justice advocates see as a sign the agency will prioritize public health over oil industry profits. But Staci Morrison, an agency spokesperson, said the rules reflect statutory requirements and that both SB 1137 and the emergency regulations would be suspended if the referendum ultimately qualifies for the ballot.

Still, Kretzmann said, the governor has many options to take the type of bold actions the climate crisis demands. Last spring, Newsom said fracking had no place in California’s future, and his oil and gas regulators stopped issuing new permits. 

“We hope that Newsom will continue to fight against the oil industry,” Kretzmann said. “There’s still so much left to do. And we’re running out of time.”

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