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Lawmakers let oil and gas interests sicken us. Governor Newsom can put us on the path to recovery. (CalMatters op-ed by The Climate Center)

By Venise Curry, MD, and Ellie Cohen, Special to CalMatters

September 14, 2020


Make no mistake about it. Climate change is powering California’s perfect storm of record heat, lightning, drought, wildfire and smoke amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and electricity blackouts.

In his video message to the Democratic National Convention in August, Governor Gavin Newsom made it clear. “The hots are getting hotter; the dries are getting drier. Climate change is real. If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.” While touring the devastating North Complex Fires near Oroville this past Friday, Governor Newsom called current state goals “inadequate to meet the challenges” and vowed to fast-track state efforts to combat the climate crisis.

Yet California continues to fan the flames as the seventh largest oil producing and third largest refining state in the country.

State lawmakers, with the exception of a few climate leaders, are increasingly falling under the thrall of oil and gas industry dollars. The Western States Petroleum Association, the largest and most powerful corporate lobby in California, spent $8.8 million on lobbying in 2019 alone.

Californians are being poisoned daily by pollutants emitted from California’s 81,500 active and idle oil and gas wells, pumps, refineries and pipes. Toxic oil and gas infrastructure – from freeways to oil rigs – are too often located in communities of color, dangerously close to homes, schools and hospitals due to historic redlining and racist redevelopment policies.

More than 5.5 million Californians live within 1 mile of an oil or gas well, exposing them regularly to polluted air and increased risk for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Pregnant women living within 6 miles of oil and gas wells are significantly more likely to experience preterm birth with low birth weights. Research shows that these children face a greater risk of infections, developmental delays and other health problems.

Oil and gas wells also release carcinogens like benzene into neighboring communities as well as warming greenhouse pollutants into the atmosphere.

On Aug. 5, lawmakers in Sacramento had the chance to take one modest step to reduce the harmful impacts of oil and gas development by passing Assembly Bill 345. It would have required state regulators to establish a minimum health and safety barrier from wells, as already exists in other states. Unfortunately, it failed on a 5-4 vote, just one example of how policymakers bow to fossil fuel interests instead of prioritizing the health and well-being of all Californians.

We urgently need state policymakers to step it up.

New national climate plans call for a range of expedited actions to address the climate crisis. Proposals include achieving 100% clean electricity by 2030, 100% zero emissions vehicles by 2035 and near-zero emissions by 2040.

But current California law calls for just 60% renewables by 2030, provides no deadline for phasing-out gas powered cars or trucks, and only aspires to carbon neutrality by 2045.

We can – and we must – do better, as the Governor said.

To protect the health and well-being of Californians and to catalyze greater climate action around the nation and the world, California must expand and accelerate its climate policies.

Boldly addressing the climate crisis will yield significant, widespread improvements in health and a huge economic payoff. Every dollar spent on renewables creates three times as many jobs as compared to fossil fuels. And clean energy industries create jobs 70% faster than the economy as a whole.

To back up his urgent message that we are in a climate emergency, Newsom is uniquely positioned to jumpstart policies that will protect Californians and re-establish the state’s global climate leadership.

By partnering with the building and construction unions, and others representing fossil fuel and utility industry workers, alongside environmental justice leaders, public health organizations, local governments, clean energy businesses, climate experts and others, the governor can “fast-track” urgent climate action.

With Newsom’s bold leadership, we can rapidly secure a just transition to a healthy, equitable and vibrant clean energy future for all.

Venise Curry, MD, is a community organizer and board member of The Climate Center, veniseaaimcouncil@gmail.com. The intersection between medicine, environmental and social justice issues are at the core of her advocacy efforts in Fresno County.

 Ellie Cohen is CEO of The Climate Center and leads Climate-Safe California, a statewide campaign to enact policies required by science to reverse the climate crisis, ellie@theclimatecenter.org.