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Introducing “The Slick California”: How the Oil and Gas Industry Influences Climate Policy in the Golden State

Even in the face of catastrophic changes to the environment, fossil fuel interests continue to advance their agenda in the Golden State.




Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

California, the most populated state in the U.S. and the fifth-largest economy in the world, is critical to the nation’s efforts to stop the acceleration of global warming. The state has been on the frontier of climate solutions, serving as a laboratory where policymakers wrestle with environmental and commercial interests. It is also a showcase for some of the most extreme impacts of climate change.

The 2020 wildfire season was California’s most destructive in modern times with more than four million acres burned, while 2018 was the deadliest, claiming the lives of nearly 100 civilians and firefighters. Climate change has redefined seasons in California, and wildfire is now a year-round threat in a state where a quarter of the population lives in high-fire-risk areas. California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment estimates that the state’s burn areas will grow another 77% by the end of the century.

Although other climate change impacts in the state have not yet captured the public imagination like the visceral terror of raging wildfire, the threats to California’s populace, environment and economy are manifold and profound. A Nature Climate Change study says that warming will cause a 25% to 100% increase in extreme dry-to-wet precipitation events in California — what scientists call “precipitation whiplash,” in which drought conditions alternate with intensely rainy winters that can cause devastating flooding.

Up to two-thirds of Southern California beaches may completely erode by 2100 without large-scale human intervention.

The state’s coastal communities face potential destruction from a combination of sea-level rise and 100-year storm events. According to the state’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, “resultant flooding in Southern California could affect 250,000 people and lead to damages of $50 billion worth of property and $39 billion worth of buildings.”  The assessment found that 31% to 67% of Southern California beaches may completely erode by 2100 without large-scale human intervention.

On the flip side of the precipitation whiplash, in 2015 scientists from University of California, Davis, estimated that drought had exacted a $2.7 billion toll on the state’s economy due to agricultural losses in that year. The state’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment warns of a potential two-thirds decline in snowpack by the turn of the century. A 2018 University of California study portended large losses to California’s agriculture sector, with the increased heat, prolonged drought and surges in pests and plant diseases wrought by global warming. The study’s researchers warned that “the increased rate and scale of climate change is beyond the realm of experience for the agricultural community,” and threatens food security and larger economic forces.

These impacts notwithstanding, the oil and gas industry continues to exert significant influence over climate policy in California — easing regulations intended to cut emissions, undermining environmental protections, securing taxpayer subsidies to the industry — thanks in large part to lavish spending. Database searches on reveal that from 2014 through 2018, the oil and gas industry reported nearly $104 million on lobbying at the state level — in addition to the nearly $50 million spent on contributions to political campaigns and committees in California. Those figures do not encompass the vast sums spent on dark money campaigns, communications and other unreported efforts to steer political and public sentiment.

While media outlets have covered the epic fights between the fossil fuel industry and climate activists, they are simply overmatched.

Oil and gas companies reported a staggering $26 million on state lobbying expenditures in 2017 as the legislature fought over cap-and-trade renewal, a linchpin of the state’s climate change regulation policy. Early drafts of proposed legislation included language that was taken near verbatim from an oil industry wish list. Although a more ambitious extension of cap and trade had broad support from environmental and community advocates, an industry-shaped bill ultimately became law, making it easier and cheaper to pollute but harder for local air regulators to restrict emissions.

California is the only major oil-producing state that has no severance tax on fossil fuel extraction — thanks in part to the $94 million spent by the oil and gas industry to defeat a 2006 ballot measure.

While media outlets have covered the epic fights between the fossil fuel industry and climate activists, they are simply overmatched. During the past 15 years, California has lost more daily newspapers than any other state: from 97 in 2004 to 68 in 2019. In addition, 86 weekly newspapers shut down.

With today’s launch of “The Slick California,” Capital & Main begins an open-ended investigation into the powerful influence of the oil and gas industry on politics, policy and climate change in the Golden State. Our goal is to provide the public with real-time information on how, even in the face of catastrophic changes to the natural environment and human health, fossil fuel interests continue to advance their agenda in California. In doing so, we hope to increase the accountability of public officials whose decisions may be contrary to the common good, and to contribute to a deeper understanding of the state’s high-stakes climate battles.

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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