Governor Newsom poised to strengthen climate goals

Source: By Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, September 21, 2020

Expectations are swirling around California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and his promise to accelerate the state’s response to global warming.

Amid devastating fires in the western United States, Newsom pledged the Golden State would do more. An announcement could come as soon as this week, but Newsom has said little publicly about the details.

Environmental groups want Newsom to force the use of more clean cars and renewable energy, and to phase out natural gas use in buildings. Representatives for oil companies operating in the state are on watch, saying the governor could put restrictions on oil drilling.

Newsom aides wouldn’t discuss any of it.

This week is seen as politically advantageous. It’s “Clean Energy Week,” an annual campaign sponsored by renewable energy advocates and environmental groups. The event gives Newsom a “global stage” to lay out a plan and call for other governors to take similar steps, said Katelyn Roedner Sutter, manager of the U.S. climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“He could use this moment to really catalyze action beyond California and really amplify California’s legacy of climate leadership,” Sutter said. “It would be a high-profile opportunity if he is going to do something to do it then.”

Newsom said earlier this month the Golden State needed to “fast-track” efforts on global warming (Climatewire, Sept. 14). The statement followed weeks of West Coast wildfires, which have burned neighborhoods, killed at least 35 people and cast a shroud of smoke over West Coast cities.

Newsom and the Democratic governors of Oregon and Washington state blamed climate change for worsening fires. Climate scientists agree, saying a long drought and record-breaking temperatures year after year dried out vegetation. That left trees vulnerable to infestation by bark beetles, an outbreak of bugs that killed off swaths of major forests.

Fires in California so far this year have burned nearly 3.4 million acres, compared with about 1.7 million in 2018, a recent year with large fires. That level of fire was projected in climate models to arrive midcentury — not now, said Alex Hall, a climate scientist at UCLA.

It gives Newsom both the responsibility and the opening to take action, said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s School of Law. The fires have created anxiety among residents, he said, and “there’s an opportunity to channel all of that anxiety into policy.”

The Golden State’s current goals seek carbon neutrality by 2045. State law mandates that all electricity must come from clean energy sources by that year. California wants to get drivers into 5 million zero-emissions vehicles within a decade. Automakers selling in the state must produce a certain percentage of ZEVs, a share designed to increase annually.

Green groups want an accelerated timetable.

Earthjustice and the Sierra Club called last week for an effort to push out gas-fueled cars starting in a decade, by restricting sales of new cars to ZEV models. The green groups want the state to get all of its electricity from clean sources also by 2030, with investments in energy storage to make it feasible. The groups also want the state, through building code updates, to ban natural gas in new homes, starting in 2023.

EDF’s Sutter said expediting cleaner transportation, homes and electricity is challenging but feasible.

“We also don’t really have another option,” she said, with climate change impacts accelerating. The alternative of not acting and seeing more record-breaking fires “is also really difficult to live through year after year.”

Paul Cort, staff attorney for Earthjustice, noted that the European Union’s executive is calling for faster and more aggressive greenhouse gas emissions cuts (Climatewire, Sept. 15). China has ZEV mandates and is pushing the technology, he added.

“This is not California being way out in front,” Cort said of potential actions by Newsom. It’s “California keeping up with other countries. Just compared to the rest of the U.S., it looks bold.”

Change of focus

Newsom’s call for more forceful action on climate change marks a shift in tone, several observers said.

RL Miller, chair of California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus, interviewed Newsom when he was running for governor in 2017 and asked how he planned to address climate change.

“What he said to me back then was, simply, all he wanted to do was implement [former Gov.] Jerry Brown’s plans,” Miller said. “It was very vague. It had no substance. … I was appalled.”

Newsom has focused on economic equity issues such as the lack of affordable housing in the state. He negotiated with the state Legislature on protections for renters but “never put his political capital” behind added density in urban areas and housing near transit, Elkind said. Those are needed to cut emissions from transportation.

In January, Newsom did propose a multiyear, $1 billion bond package for climate issues in his budget, but that idea got shelved after the COVID-19 pandemic zapped the state’s finances.

If he wants to be aggressive, Newsom has leverage to direct actions from state agencies, green advocates said.

The California Air Resources Board could seek to limit sales of new cars to ZEVs starting in 2030. Some experts said that would require a waiver from EPA, which would be difficult if President Trump wins reelection but feasible if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is elected.

A mandate phasing out gas- and diesel-fueled vehicles would be stronger coming from the Legislature, Elkind said. But that could be difficult to accomplish. Gov. Brown in 2015 wanted to pass a law mandating a 50% cut in petroleum use by 2030. Democratic leaders dropped it from a larger climate bill because of opposition from the oil industry and others.

Newsom late last year put a moratorium on new leases for drilling using steam injection and ordered an independent review of pending oil and gas applications for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking (Energywire, Nov. 20, 2019). His administration earlier this year, however, issued permits for new wells using fracking.

If Newsom just focuses on faster adoption of clean sources for electricity, which many see as the easiest to accomplish, “It’s not reducing the supply side” of fossil fuels, Miller said. She called for tougher regulations on new and existing oil wells combined with “an effort to get Californians out of gas cars.”

Newsom could restrict oil drilling by calling for rules to keep new wells at a specified distance — or setback — from schools, homes and other sensitive sites.

However, he didn’t throw his political weight behind that concept earlier this year when it was in legislation, A.B. 345, Miller said. The bill died in committee.

One oil industry insider, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely, said an executive order from the governor this week “almost certainly” would include that setback provision.

One potential scenario is an interim order with an additional directive that the state’s oil drilling regulator, the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), analyze the concept.

Newsom also could tell CalGEM to make more demands of oil companies before they can get new drilling permits, the oil industry person said.

That could include proving they have the financial backing to support wells for the long term. The Los Angeles Times reported in February that California has thousands of unplugged and idle oil and natural gas wells that could cost taxpayers several billion dollars to clean up.

The oil industry source said Newsom likely would frame it as an environmental justice issue — as some of the wells are near where economically disadvantaged residents live.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said in a statement that “we’ve heard the rumors, and hope the Governor is not in denial of what his orders could impose on California’s families, the economy and our future.”