Calif. Jerry Brown has been criticized for not urging Attorney General Xavier Becerra to join New York and Massachusetts in investigating ExxonAmong climate activists' frustration with California Gov. Jerry Brown: He never pushed Attorney General Xavier Becerra, right, to investigate Exxon for climate fraud. Photo credit: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

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By Seamus McGraw

When Jerry Brown first began to claw his way back from a long political exile to reclaim the governor’s seat in Sacramento eight years ago, many in the environmental movement were ecstatic. But their climate champion never reached the heights they predicted.

Now, after two bruising terms in office, Brown’s green mantle has become threadbare in the eyes of some of the state’s most high-profile environmental activists. They contend that the governor has tarnished his legacy by cozying up to oil and gas companies, becoming in essence, a paper tiger on the issue of climate change.

While in office, Brown has championed action against climate change and loudly argued against many of the Trump administration policies designed to roll back environmental and climate protection, and as his critics concede, he has overseen a steady decline in California’s oil and gas production. But, as they also emphasize, Brown failed to ban fracking in the state as both New York and Maryland have done, and his administration has been unwilling to join other states and local governments in the effort to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate damages. He has also failed to push Attorney General Xavier Becerra to join New York and Massachusetts in investigating Exxon for potential climate fraud against investors and the general public.

It’s a far cry from the man who, as Colin Sullivan wrote in the New York Times, “for four decades…collided with oil companies, blocked offshore drilling, sought solutions to the state’s water-supply puzzle, advocated for clean energy, pressed appliance and efficiency standards, barred nuclear development, and, most recently, taken his belief in greenhouse gas emissions limits to state courts.”

Indeed, in recent years the tensions between Brown and some activists have even taken on a personal tone. While legislators were debating the state’s cap and trade program, the fourth largest in the world that was extended last year, his stance provoked activists to openly oppose him.  “I did a petition calling on him to stop being Chevron’s stenographer,” said RL Miller, chair of the Democratic Party’s environmental caucus and founder of the organization Climate Hawks Vote. “And at the bill signing he called me an environmental terrorist.”

The extension allowed in-state companies to purchase credits out of state to offset their emission caps, a measure some environmentalists decried as a giveaway to the oil companies.

On balance, Miller said, the caustic battle over the cap and trade bill extension was emblematic of the administration’s uneven environmental record.

“Obviously on reducing California’s dependence on coal to fuel our electricity grid, he gets a solid grade there,” Miller said. But even there, because the governor supports a grid regionalization bill that would link California to the rest of the Western grid, Miller and others fret that it could open the door for more coal-generated electricity to come surging through California power lines. Miller also contends that the governor was unusually quiet when the legislature was debating the landmark clean energy bill, SB 100, which commits the state to using 100 percent renewable energy for electricity generation by 2045.

The bill passed the Assembly last week and is awaiting the governor’s signature. But more to the point, Miller said, “he’s never come to grips…with the fact that California is one of the top five or so oil-producing states in the nation, and in fact, he’s been very, very cozy with the industry and I’ve been very critical of him on that.”

Brown’s critics concede that during his administration, California’s standing among oil-producing states—and its raw output of oil and gas—have both continued and even accelerated their decades-long decline. In March, California dropped to sixth among oil-producing states, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration and last year, oil output from California was down by 33,000 barrels a day, to about 175 million barrels, a little less than half of what it had been in the 1980s.  

But Brown has stopped short of endorsing policies—including a fracking ban—that would hasten that decline further.

Since Brown took office, the state has approved permits for at least 21,397 oil and gas wells, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which reviewed state data from January 2011 to April 2018, said Kassie Siegel, climate program director for the center. Of those that could be pinpointed on a map, 76 percent were in poorer communities, often communities of color, Siegel said.

Siegel contends that the very fact that oil and gas production in California is declining at the same time that new wells are being approved is evidence that the state has been presented with a unique opportunity to extricate itself from its ties to the oil and gas industry.

“The easy oil is all gone in California. You’ve had 150 years of oil companies raking in profits. That’s one of the reasons why the carbon intensity of our oil is increasing and is so climate-damaging, because it takes way more effort to get it out,” she said. “You need massive amounts of these ultra-hazardous techniques like fracking…. so the oil companies are doing a lot more damage—they have to drill more wells and do more damaging things and cause more harm to produce less oil.” Indeed, some of the byproducts of those extreme processes, like petroleum coke, are so dirty that they can’t even legally be burned in California and are often exported overseas, Siegel noted.

“The carbon budget for fossil fuels is overspent, just like a household budget. We know we cannot dig up everything that’s in already open producing fields globally now. There’s no room for new stuff. And somewhere somebody has to start a thoughtful phase-out of existing extraction,” Siegel said. “The argument about production already declining in California…only highlights that there is no place in the world better suited than California to lead in the transition out of existing fossil production that we need.”

If that’s the test, Siegel contends, the Brown administration has failed it.

Jamie Henn of the climate activism group 350.org is less blunt in his assessment of Brown’s pending legacy, but no less critical of the governor’s record on fossil fuel production in the state.  “Jerry Brown, on one side of the coin, has done a relatively good job. He’s done more, arguably, than any other governor to rally the push for renewable energy. California is a leader in the states, both policy-wise as well as the companies, the innovation, the business climate of the state,” Henn said.  “So credit where credit is due. Governor Moonbeam has become Governor Sunbeam. He’s done a great job on that.”

But, Henn cautioned, that record of accomplishment is in danger of being eclipsed. “Brown has refused to accept the logic that you cannot solve the climate crisis if you are still digging new fossil fuels out of the ground. “

Of course, Brown does have his defenders. “I am not in agreement with everything the governor has done,” “ said Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “But I think his overall record is really exemplary compared to any other politician you can name who actually has had to govern.”

The way Borenstein sees it, California produces an infinitesimal fraction of the world’s fossil fuels that are driving the planet toward an ever-warming future: some .05 percent of the world’s oil supply comes out of the earth in California. Even if California were to end production today, he argues, the overall impact on the climate would be negligible.

Borenstein argued that Brown’s top accomplishment has been making the development and deployment of renewables its top priority on the environmental front, and it has done it in a political environment that has become increasingly hostile toward the idea of combating the primacy of fossil fuels.

“The reality is there are people in the environmental community who, no matter what you do, are going to say you’re not doing enough or you’re not doing the things they want to do,” he said.

Indeed, Brown’s achievements, while uneven, are still impressive, according to D.R. Tucker, a columnist for Washington Monthly and co-host of a podcast on the Massachusetts Climate Network. California, he has written, is in many places deeply conservative despite its image as a progressive state, and neither Brown nor the activists who criticize him have been able to muster the popular support to more aggressively take on the powerful oil industry.

“Politicians are never going to lead unless they feel that they have a supermajority of the people having their back,” Tucker said.

“We’re at a point now where climate activism…is not just being for clean energy. You have to have people who are directly opposed to the fossil fuel industry. And my sense is that you have people (who say)  ‘yeah, we like clean energy, yeah we like clean air. ‘But is there a majority in California that is against—firmly, forcefully energetically against the fossil fuel industry? And the answer to that is no. And that’s why Jerry Brown is so cautious.”

Political practicality aside, it’s a measure of how fractious the relationship between Brown and some environmentalists has become that when activists gather on Sept. 8 in San Francisco, days before Brown hosts his Global Climate Action Summit, representatives of some 800 groups plan to present him with a petition demanding that California issue no new permits for oil and gas extraction or related infrastructure or petrochemical plants. The groups are operating under an umbrella organization called “Brown’s Last Chance.”

As the clock runs out on the 80-year-old governor’s last term in Sacramento, Henn said it really is Brown’s last chance to cement his legacy on environmental issues.

“If Brown does the right thing, we will do our best to make the case that he has a legacy to be proud of,” Henn said. “We see him not as the enemy but as someone who has an important choice to make. And the clock is ticking.”