The era of California’s big climate ambitions is over, even as California’s megadroughts and wildfires worsen.
California’s biggest climate bill of 2021 is already dead, having failed to survive its first hearing in a Senate committee. Senate Bill 467 would have done three things: established 2,500-foot setbacks between oil wells and people’s homes; ensured a managed decline of California’s oil industry; and created a just transition fund for workers displaced by that decline.
The first is fairly mild. Texas already has setbacks, while California does not, but the oil and building trades union alliance freaked out about a setback stand-alone bill last year. The second was the big enchilada, and on that hill the bill died. Never mind the promise of a just transition for workers.
SB 467 began as a bill to ban fracking and other forms of dangerous drilling, and that’s most of the drilling being done in California. Critics accused its authors of wanting to kill off the California oil industry entirely, and in response the authors embraced that label.
In its final form, SB 467 would have established a timetable, giving business plenty of time to plan for the end of oil. It was a breathtaking, audacious bill, but one wholly in line with science and with prior groundbreaking laws generated in the state.
California was once the nation’s climate leader, the national laboratory in which experiments like cap and trade (AB 32, 2006) and 100 percent clean energy by 2045 (SB 100, 2018) were tried.
But since 2018, big climate bills have foundered. Assembly Bill 3030, to conserve 30 percent of California’s wild places by 2030? It failed to pass. Senate Bill 54, to end single-use plastics? Failed to pass in 2020. (It’s returned this year.) A dozen 2020 housing bills aiming to densify cities? Failed to pass. Bills to ban gasoline-powered cars by 2040? Couldn’t even get hearings. Assembly Bill 525 to promote offshore wind? Pulled for lack of committee votes. SB 467, the boldest and most ambitious bill of all? It died in its first committee hearing.
The most obvious culprit: an alliance between California’s powerful building trades unions and its oil industry, California Common Ground. A few years ago, the building trades were interested in climate policy and the accompanying jobs, but since formalizing their alliance with the oil industry in 2019, they’ve taken on the lead role in killing climate bills like SB 467.
That alliance is a huge problem for California Democrats, who generally embrace organized labor. Especially when the building trades bring along other labor organizations. Here, the California Professional Firefighters allied with wildfire causes.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, not to be confused with a climate hawk, over-promises and under-delivers even when not running from a recall campaign. At the end of the 2020 wildfire season and under pressure to prove that he was more than a climate tweeter, he declared he wanted a bill to end fracking. But when state Sen. Scott Wiener listened and gave him SB 467 this year, he suddenly couldn’t be bothered to read the bill.
Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon both say the right things on climate, but neither prioritizes the issue, and both are far more interested in maintaining good relationships with labor allies than in challenging this unholy alliance.
California Democrats are poised to reelect the party chair, Rusty Hicks, who came out of the labor movement. Hicks is actively hostile to climate policy and ridicules youth climate activists’ demands for a better future.
What now? I’ve led the state party’s environmental caucus for eight years but am increasingly alienated by leadership that actually prefers jobs on a dying planet. So I’m stepping down.
The Legislature still has a few climate hawks, people like Assemblymember Laura Friedman, Sen. Monique Limón and Sen. Henry Stern. Lots of small bills abound.
Maybe by 2030 Californians will take some comfort in knowing that Chevron is finally cleaning up its abandoned oil wells, Exxon is finally disclosing its risks, and California is finally buying cleaner products.
Or maybe by 2030 we won’t care. The wildfires already came for me. I watched helplessly as the Woolsey Fire came within 500 feet of my home and burned down my sons’ preschool and soccer fields and childhood memories. They’re coming for the rest of California, too.
Or just maybe I can hope that the Democratic supermajority in the Legislature will work with the Democratic governor to prioritize climate ambition once more.
RL Miller is the founder of Climate Hawks Vote and chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus.