From Gov. Jerry Brown On Down, Too Many California Democrats Sell Out On Fracking And Climate Change

The reasons wary—political cowardice, corruption, compromise and election year self-interest—but regardless, many top Democrats in California, from Gov. Jerry Brown to a sizeable block of state senators, are not even allowing modest steps to postpone a gigantic new wave of oil and natural gas drilling in the state. 

Charles Stewart, the spokesman for California Sen. Holly Mitchell, whose district is in south and east Los Angeles, where newly expanded drilling shadows parks, schools and many poor neighborhoods, has had a front row seat and can’t say what’s most alarming.

Stewart has seen Democratic state senators sell out his boss, by skipping a recent vote on her statewide fracking moratorium. He’s seen Democrats get rewarded with campaign funds from oil and gas lobbyists for voting "no" on it. He’s seen Brown defend drilling and brush off environmentalists' concerns. And he’s seen broad anti-fracking sentiments ignored, from statewide polls overwhelmingly supporting a moratorium to dismissed public health and racial justice concerns.

“It wasn’t last minute,” Stewart said, speaking of the Democratic senators who in late May avoided voting on Mitchell’s moratorium, which would have postponed a new wave of drilling enabled by hydralic fracturing and other exteme techniques until the health and environmental impacts were known. “Holly Mitchell had carried a moratorium [bill] last year in the Assembly. It died on the floor. In both cases, it was not the opposition’s votes that defeated it. It was the failure of votes from our Democratic caucus.”

California’s environmentalists have many deep concerns. They are well aware that the 1,750-square-mile Monterey Shale formation, covering the state’s west-central section, is said to contain America’s biggest shale oil reserves. Federal energy agencies estimate it contains 13.7 billion barrels of oil. Above all, environmentalists believe that tapping that carbon source, like building the Keystone XL pipeline, would keep pushing atmospheric carbon to a point of no return, altering life as we know it on Earth.

“Tapping into that is not consistent with the steps we need to take to keep climate under control in this country and in the world,” Dan Jacobson, Environment California policy director and top lobbyist, recently told KALW-FM in San Francisco.

The environmentalists know that fracking requires tremendous amounts of water—at the same time California is facing a drought. They also don’t want to see drilling pollute groundwater that’s used by the Central Valley’s farmers who grow most of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts, which is already happening. They don’t want to see fracking increase the incidence and severity of earthquakes, citing that result in other states. A handful of small cities and counties have adopted fracking restrictions.

But they haven’t convinced enough Democrats who have the power to put the brakes on a new wave of fracking across California, starting with Jerry Brown.

As governor, Brown has been attacked by anti-fracking activists for his contradictory stances, touting California’s progress on climate change while supporting oil and gas drilling. When Brown spoke at the California Democratic Party’s Convention in March, he began by emphasizing the state's progress on climate change: reducing billions of tons of carbon emissions; generating a third of electricity from renewables; building 30 percent of nation’s electric cars; encouraging energy efficient buildings. But Brown was interrupted and heckled by anti-fracking activists from Culver City in Hlly Mitchell's district—the wells near Los Angeles’ LAX airport.   

In 1992, when Brown was the ex-California governor running for president, his pro-environmental legacy was seen as one reason that Bill Clinton picked environmentalist Al Gore as his running mate. At that convention, Brown’s delegates jeered and waved signs saying, “Save The Soul of Party.” As he stood before his state’s 2014 Democratic Convention and tried to generate enthusiasm for a fourth term, Brown was interrupted by jeers of “Ban fracking,” “No fracking,” and signs saying the same thing.

“All you guys who like to make noise, just listen, for a moment,” the governor tersely replied. “Californians, including most of you, are driving 330 million miles a year. So the challenge here is gigantic.”

“I have never seen anything like that,” Stewart said, recalling the moment. “It was huge. They rattled him.”

California Democrats, who control the state, cite different reasons for supporting some level of fracking—now and in the future. In Brown’s case, he says that climate change is one of the most pressing challenges that California faces, but until sufficient alternative energy sources and new ways for people to live are deployed on a mass scale, he won’t oppose fracking. The five senators who intentionally skipped May’s moratorium vote have said that they back fracking because it will bring future high-paying jobs.

The motives of Democrats voting no, or not voting at all, are not hard to discern, Stewart said. They’re all taking a path laid out by oil and gas lobbyists. Those voting no received campaign donations—14 times more than senators who voted yes. More important was the whispering campaign of re-election threats, he said. “The oil industry keeps repeating that these are good jobs,” Stewart said, followed by, “You don’t want an opponent who may be well-financed.”

This is not to say that California’s oil and gas industry has gotten everything—but it’s not complaining. Last fall, the Legislature passed and Brown signed a very watered-down bill creating new regulatory hurdles for natural gas fracking and acidizing, or loosening rocks containing oil. It requires permits for new drilling, notice to nearby residents, disclosing chemicals used, measuring groundwater and air quality, and other studies. But, critically, it allows current drilling to continue and doesn’t impose new barriers to fracking. Ten other fracking bills died in the Legislature in the past year, Stewart said.

This political landscape is only part of what is challenging California environmentalists. Across the country, the largest climate change campaigns have focused on blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, which would take very dirty oil from Canada to the U.S. In states along the north-western Appalachian mountains—Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York—many local government boards have tried to block the fracking industry from siezing property, running roughshod over their zoning, and polluting the groundwater and air. In some states, such as Oklahoma, fracking—which uses water and chemicals injected under very high pressure to fracture the substructure to release gas—has led to unprecedented earthquakes.

In California, the politics have been discouraging. Right after the state Democratic Convention, Brown, who likes to avoid talking about fracking as much as he likes to tout California’s progress on climate change, was asked about the protesters’ main point—you cannot be pro-fracking while taking steps to slow climate change.

“The premise of that assertion is that climate change is primarily about fracking. And that’s the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard,” he told a statewide public radio audience. “The key point here, that most people have in their minds, is fracking the Monterey Shale. Nobody’s doing that. At best, it’s several years [away] if it ever happens. And it can’t happen until a major and the first serious scientific study, to an environmental impact analysis that I required by a law I signed two months ago, is done.”

California environmentalists say that Brown is being coy. In a 2013 press conference on the budget, Brown said that he has “some sympathy” for oil drilling because California is a state of drivers and commuters. “Until we get them in electric cars, or walking or riding their bikes, we need oil. But we’ve got to get off it. Climate change is very real.”

At best, Brown’s position might be described as studied ambivilence—he knows what’s going on but disagrees with the anti-fracking activists. In the state Senate, the politics appear to be rougher and more craven. Two weeks before the moratorium vote in late May, the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council conducted a statewide poll finding that 68 percent of Californians backed a fracking moratorium. Among Democrats, it was 78 percent. Among Independents, 74 percent. Among Republicans, 51 percent.

California has 40 state senators; 28 Democrats and 12 Republicans. Three of the Democrats have been suspended by their collegues due to criminal investigations. When the fracking moratorium, SB 1132, came up for a vote in late May, five additional Democrats—in districts along the Mexican border, the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles, and in Silicon Valley—intentionally skipped the vote. Nearly one-third of all elected Democratic senators did not vote on a stance supported by a super majority of Californians.

Stewart said that the Democrats who voted against the bill, or “walked,” feared being labelled as job-killers in re-election campaigns. “It's jobs," he said bluntly. "It wasn’t that it would kill current jobs, but it comes out of California’s high [regional] unemployment.” Meanwhile, his boss’s efforts to frame the moratorium as a public health and racial justice issue didn’t sway other senators.

“The battle lines here are those who want fracking stopped until it is proven safe—and there are doubts it can be,” Stewart said. “The other side says, ‘Prove that it causes damage.’ ‘Isolate injuries to individuals.’ It’s not hard to prove symptoms, but it’s hard isolating fracking as the cause. Until then, they say, ‘We own the property. It’s for commercial use. So don’t burden us or stop the process.’”

“Essentially, they won,” he said. “Fracking continues in California until we can produce a study that isolates injuries that it can affect. Our argument is the opposite. Stop the fracking until we know it’s safe.”

Days before the Senate moratorium vote, another unexpected development surfaced that gave Democrats, including Brown, more cover from taking a leadership stance. The Los Angeles Times reported that the federal agency that had issued the estimate that the Monterey Shale held 13.7 billion barrels of oil was preparing an new estimate—to be released in July—that only 600 million barrels of oil were accessible via current technologies. The Western States Petroleum Association replied that it would “solve this puzzle.”

That significantly revised estimate—more than 90 percent—gave California’s Democrats room to postpose a fracking decision, because it underscored that large scale drilling was not an immediate threat.

Since then, many of the state's Democratic legislators are showing other signs that they are not taking climate change as a serious enough threat to make it a policy priority. Last week, Fresno’s Democratic assemblyman introduced a bill t delay an upcomimg increase in gas prices planned under California’s first-in-the-nation cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. The program lets industry buy allowances to offset climate-changing gases that they are releasing into the air.

That’s not the only example. The hundreds of millions of dollars raised by the cap-and-trade program is now seen as a piggy bank for state projects. Brown wants to tap it for high-speed rail. The Senate president wants some for affordable house. Unlike Alaska, where the oil industry pays every resident an annual profit-sharing dividend—$1,400 this year—there’s no parallel in California where residents get a climate dividend. Most Californians aren't even aware of the cap-and-trade revenues.

Meanwhile, influential political analysts are cheering Brown's fracking stance., The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters, said that his refusal to cave into anti-fracking hecklers was only going to help his re-election. That analysis typifies mainstream political thinking where climate change policy, from fracking to cap and trade, all take a back seat to shorter-term economic priorities.

“It helped Jerry because it reminded everybody that he stands between the Democratic Party’s left wing, and everybody else,” Walters said right after the 2014 Democratic Convention. “It reminded, particularly business, that they need to have Jerry Brown in place to prevent the left-wingers from taking over the party entirely, and doing things that business doesn’t want, like banning fracking, raising taxes and what not. It was a perfect thing for Jerry. Almost a campaign commercial.” 

When it comes to the future of fracking in California, Brown’s compromise poses big problems. But there also are far too many top Democrats who are aligned with the oil and gas industry, who care more about imagined future oil-and-gas jobs in their district, or worry about next month’s gas prices, rather than standing firm on behalf of climate change. And these are not even Republicans.

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