- Paul Rosenberg
Ambitions have strong local impact
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
On May 18, Oil Change International released a report, Sky’s the Limit California. The report outlines a pathway to a post-carbon future for the state that rests on two key elements: a managed reduction in fossil fuel production, and the planning and funding to ensure a just transition that takes care of impacted workers and communities.
Both key elements would have a profound impact in Wilmington, said Ashley Hernandez, a Wilmington resident and field organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, also known as CBE. For example, closing oil wells inside a 2,500-foot health buffer zone around homes, schools and hospitals is a key part of the plan. It would dramatically reduce drilling in Los Angeles.
“I live right next door to oil drilling myself, less than 600 feet from it,” Hernandez told Random Lengths News. “So, dealing with those impacts, I completely understand and am a proof of that study.”
CBE is part of a broader environmental justice coalition, STAND-LA, which seeks to end neighborhood drilling in the city. The new report argues for statewide relief.
Although California is widely seen as a leader in responding to climate change, Gov. Jerry Brown has acknowledged that “No nation or state is doing what they should be doing.”
Brown made that assessment this past year as he announced a Climate Action Summit meeting that’s coming to San Francisco in September 2018, with the specific goal of supporting the Paris climate agreement, which has been abandoned by President Donald Trump.
But while Brown — along with other state leaders — has committed the state to significant reductions in fossil fuel consumption, he has previously opposed any efforts to curb fossil fuel production in the state. In fact, as Random Lengths News reported in its Nov. 23, 2017 edition, California’s Crude Attempt At Climate Leadership Challenged in Bonn he has enthusiastically supported increased production via unconventional oil- and chemically-intensive well stimulation techniques (fracking, acidizing, cyclic-steam injection, etc.), drawing support from the fossil fuel industry and criticism from environmentalists in the state.
But the new report argues that approach just can’t work.
“Gov. Brown’s goal to reduce oil use in cars and trucks by 50 percent by 2030 would save about 430 million barrels of oil over the next 12 years,” compared to 660 million barrels California will produce if the reduction plans in the report aren’t adopted. Thus, “If California does not limit production, it could add a greater amount of new oil supply to the market, undermining the effectiveness of demand-side measures.”
“The lack of action on the production side is a major hole in California’s existing policies,” the report’s lead author, Kelly Trout, told Random Lengths News. “Staying within safe climate limits will require a managed decline of fossil fuel production. Every new oil and gas well drilled in California digs the world into a deeper carbon hole while undermining the state’s existing consumption-reduction policies…. It’s a basic economic principle that supply and demand are linked, and working to reduce both at once is the most effective approach to reducing emissions.”
It’s an approach known as “cutting with both arms of the scissors.”
As the report explains:
[M]eeting the state’s goals to reduce oil consumption in transportation would cause some decrease in global oil prices, in turn encouraging greater consumption in other states or countries. However, simultaneously reducing California’s production of oil would have the opposite price effect and encourage less consumption, thus reinforcing the benefits of demand-side measures.
But it’s crucial to do this in a way that protects everyone.
“If the world is to stave off catastrophic climate impacts, the fossil fuel era will need to wind down within a few decades and planning for this reality now is the best way to ensure a just and equitable transition,” Trout said. “The phase-out of drilling in California is necessary to protect the health of communities that face a severe pollution burden now from the industry.”
This includes Wilmington and other parts of Los Angeles County, the state’s second-largest site of new oil production, following Kern County.
“The move away from a fossil fuel economy will have profound effects on people on its front lines and so active dialogue with, investment in and support for these workers and communities is essential.”
The process, known as “just transition,” was pioneered by the late Tony Mizzochi, a long-time leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union.
“We show that California has the resources at hand to invest deeply in supporting workers through this transition,” Trout said. “If proactive planning begins now, then it is far more likely that the transition to a clean energy economy goes hand-in-hand with building a more fair and just economy, which should be the goal.”
A key consideration is how diverse the state’s economy is. Oil and gas drilling account for less than 0.3 percent of California’s gross domestic product and employment has been shrinking, even with the recent dirty energy boom. If anyone can afford to lead the way, California can.
There are just four main elements of the proposed plan:
- Cease issuing permits to drill new oil and gas wells. Prevents a projected 55 percent increase in emissions due to California oil production within the next 12 years.
- Begin rapid phase-out of production from 8,500 active wells within a 2,500-foot health buffer zone around homes, schools and hospitals, as the first step in the managed decline of existing extraction. Reduces state oil production by 12 percent.
- Establish a just transition fee on oil production (from 5 to 10 percent), to generate billions of dollars to support workers and communities through the transition to clean energy.
- Establish a just transition task force to develop and implement a comprehensive, inclusive statewide transition plan.
In the past, Brown has argued that it’s better to keep producing California oil, because the alternative is importing dirtier oil from elsewhere, but the report also makes clear that California’s new oil production is itself increasingly dirty.
This dirty oil includes the vast majority of new production the plan would eliminate, as well as much of the production inside buffer zones, which would also be phased out. That’s where Wilmington’s example comes to the fore.
“Putting a buffer, in any way preventing new oil wells from happening, is a change that’s not only necessary, but would bring a lot of benefits for our neighborhood,” Hernandez said.
Citing just one chemical associated with the wells, xylene, she ticked off a list of debilitating impacts: irritation to your eyes, it affects your respiratory system — respiratory illness — you also have brain damage, or damage to your nervous system, cardiovascular disease — high risk — and you also have a high risk of reproductive and endocrine disruptors.
“We don’t just have one of these [chemicals], we have at least 12 of these, recognized as the ‘Dirty Dozen,’” she said.
A June 2014 report on the Dirty Dozen, a year after the AQMD first started monitoring such chemicals, found that:
“The oil industry has reported the use of more than 45 million pounds — or 22,500 tons — of air toxics in 477 hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’), acidizing and gravel packing operations in Los Angeles and Orange counties since mandatory reporting began in June of 2013. Oil companies have also claimed ‘trade secret’ protection 5,050 times to conceal information on air toxics and other chemicals used.”
The “trade secret” claims mean we don’t even know the full extent of what community members are being exposed to—chemicals that frequently are much more dangerous in combination than when considered separately. That only intensifies the need for health buffer zones.
A 2017 research report for STAND-LA, by Nicole J. Wong, who has a master’s degree in public health, examined 14 studies on health impacts.
“Based on the current available research, a 2,500-foot setback recommendation is on the lower end of the range of distances where research has determined harmful health and quality of life impacts of toxic emissions and exposures,” Wong said.
Tellingly, the existing studies looked at much less densely populated situations.
“The population density in South Los Angeles is about 133 times greater than those of the populations investigated in the existing literature,” Wong pointed out.
Health buffer zone protections are long overdue, just in terms of protecting community health alone, said Bahram Fazeli, CBE’s director of research and policy.
“The health impacts are good enough reason … to just shut down these operations, essentially the ones within the impact zone, which is about half a mile, 2,500 feet,” Fazeli told Random Lengths News.
“It’s definitely important that we follow a model that’s really just for our residents, and our workers, to have healthy jobs and to benefit from alternative means of energy,” Hernandez said. “Those things are possible.”
“Assuming everybody is on board with understanding the health impacts and environmental impacts of fossil fuels, then the question is, ‘What is the best way to transition the economy to a clean, renewable economy?’” Fazeli said. “How do we want to transition off fossil fuels? How do we want to create these just transition programs? This presents a pretty unique opportunity for the state of California to create a program where folks can work together — the environmental community, the labor community, and decision-makers — to see how we can actually take advantage of our ability to shut some of these facilities down, and transition the workforce to a clean energy workforce.”
While Sky’s the Limit California takes a statewide view, the local situation could be even more promising.
“The city of LA, if you shut down facilities that are 2,500 feet of the sensitive receptors, or schools, people like that — people impacted — that’s going to be about 400 jobs and most of them are non-union jobs,” Fazeli said. “It’s not that we don’t care about those close people losing their jobs, but I’m just saying that relatively it’s a very, very small workforce, compared to the bigger picture in the city of LA…. This is actually a very, very important place we can start actually start transitioning folks.”
There’s also a great need and opportunity associated with cleaning up the well sites.
“They all have to be cleaned up, because they’re very polluted,” he said. “There is enormous potential for what this land has to offer, especially in the LA County, and this area, which is one of the most densely populated urban areas around the country.”
There are many different needs, he noted.
“The shortage of housing, affordable housing, there’s a need for places to generate renewable energy, local renewable energy,” he said. “There’s a shortage of open space, a shortage of parks, especially in environmental justice communities, there’s a shortage of places to access fresh food…. There’s so many things that people need.”
Activists have been having these kinds of conversations for decades. But now, Sky’s the Limit California is helping to cast them in a new light.
The report shows that placing a 5 to 10 percent just transition fee on oil production could generate an estimated $3.5 to $6.9 billion from 2019 to 2030, to invest in social protection, including wage replacement and college tuition, for workers affected by the transition off oil extraction. Combine that money with a grass-roots-based, statewide task force to guide the transition process and everything Fazeli mentioned becomes a feasible option for local task force members to consider.
Of course, politicians have to be brought on board, which is no small feat, given past history.
“As far as Gov. Brown, I mean it’s just literally his last chance,” Hernandez said. “That’s why we’re part of a campaign where we’re calling for action from Gov. Brown, to actually do something in the wake of the boom of urban oil drilling.”
Since he won’t be running for office again, the September Climate Summit would be the perfect time for him to announce bold new action. And if not, the analysis in Sky’s the Limit California will only become increasingly influential over time. California’s new leaders taking office next year will have a golden opportunity to make history as soon as they take office, if Brown doesn’t act before then.