Keep the oil in the soil! A massive win for climate justice

The world's fifth biggest economy sharply restricts oil and gas drilling

The news from DC, headquarters of the world’s first or second largest economy; is vague and depressing; Joe Manchin continues to do Big Oil’s bidding.

But the news from Sacramento, headquarters of the world’s fifth largest economy, is profoundly different. A few minutes ago Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that after many years of pushing from environmental justice advocates, the state was ready to dramatically restrict oil and gas drilling. Advocates had demanded setbacks of 2,500 feet from homes and schools; Newsom went them one better, setting a 3,200-foot limit. (For you metric fans, that would be a kilometer). Though activists said they were waiting for final details, the initial reaction was enthusiastic. “The Newsom administration is sending a strong signal that oil and gas has no place in neighborhoods,” Neena Mohan, climate justice manager for the California Environmental Justice Alliance, said in a statement.

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That means that poor residents of California—some urban, some rural, and mostly Black and Hispanic—won’t have to breathe air that’s quite as toxic as at present. Environmental justice groups around the state led this campaign, and what fun to see them triumph; groups like the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment are some of the best and most committed organizers on the planet, and it is fun to imagine the celebrations they’re all having this afternoon, and the inspiration it will provide for others. (Their fight is especially poignant in California, because new reports have found that its crude is particularly dirty and carbon-intensive.)

But it’s also a huge victory in the climate fight, because it will set a large percentage of the state—perhaps a third—off limits to oil drilling. That’s why the Western States Petroleum Association has fought so hard in opposition, spending millions lobbying in Sacramento, often in alliance with labor unions. The WSPA today condemned the new rules “activist assault on California’s way of life, economy and people” (as opposed, I guess, to endless wildfires and oil spills). With his recall election in the rearview mirror, Newsom felt confident enough to stand up to their pressure, hence today’s victory.

It’s the huge step that his illustrious predecessor Jerry Brown always refused to take, despite ongoing beseeching from many of us over the years. Brown, ironically, set in motion many of the steps on the demand side of the equation that helped make this possible: he pushed hard, for instance, for the transition to electric cars, which will soon dominate California’s roads, dramatically reducing the need for oil. But he could never nerve himself enough to stand up to the oil companies and restrict the supply of crude. Hence he will always be remembered as a first-generation climate leader, but one who couldn’t make the transition to the current array of crucial fights, which focus as squarely on supply as demand.

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I’ve always imagined that’s because in the California of his youth—when Brown’s Dad was governor in the 1950s—oil was still a huge business in the Golden State. In those days, if you looked at a map of the U.S. in an encyclopedia (google it, kids), you’d see a pickaxe symbol marking California as a mining state, and an oil derrick symbolizing its petroleum industry. Now, of course, you’d see a smartphone; oil doesn’t carry anywhere near the clout it once did, not in a state whose growth industries are far more focused on solar power, batteries, EVs.

As in so many ways, California is a leading indicator here: the political influence of the oil industry has passed its peak and is now in sharp decline. That’s true in many other places: it should be noted that Joe Biden, who called in the last debate for a “transition away from the oil industry,” has managed to line up 48 Democratic Senators behind a strong climate bill. That may not be quite enough—and in any event, Biden will come under increasing pressure to address the supply side of the equation as well. (He shut down the Keystone pipeline because of its effect on the climate, but mystifyingly has allowed Line 3 to proceed, though it’s a pipe of the same size carrying the same stuff).

The oil industry grows weaker by the day: this week has seen new divestment commitments from the Ford Foundation, and a bunch of elite colleges; look for many more announcements next week in the runup to Glasgow. But of course the climate crisis grows fiercer by the day, too: the Lancet, perhaps the world’s foremost medical journal, published a new report on Wednesday saying that rising temperatures were fast becoming the “defining narrative of human health,” in the process “triggering food shortages, deadly disasters and disease outbreaks that would dwarf the toll” from covid. And the oil industry always has some new trick up its sleeve—in California this autumn its pushing converting refineries to “biofuels,” in this case soybeans linked to Amazon deforestation.

So it’s a race—it always has been. But today the good guys gained a little ground.