Jerry Brown Is Getting Heckled At His Own Climate Conference

Three years ago this month protesters in front of a Wells Fargo branch in the financial district of San Francisco also targeted Gov. Jerry Brown. (Photo by Flickr User Peg Hunter)

You might think that local environmentalists would be fawning over Governor Jerry Brown this week. After all, he just signed bills to move the state to 100% renewable electricity and ban off-shore drilling. But instead, many of them are protesting at his international climate change conference in San Francisco. What's going on?

WHO ARE THESE PROTESTERS?

They're part of the environmental justice movement, many people of color from less well-off, more polluted places like South L.A. or Wilmington. They want the fight for climate change to result in cleaner air for them right now.

Meanwhile, the people they are protesting (Governor Brown and his allies) are part of the mainstream environmental movement, which is often wealthier and whiter. Mainstream environmentalists support big, sweeping actions to fight climate change globally and generally think environmental justice groups are trying to twist climate laws into fixing air pollution, too.

WHAT DO PROTESTERS WANT?

They want the Governor to stop issuing new drilling permits for oil wells. And they want him to phase-out existing oil production by creating a buffer: any well that's within 2,500 feet of a home, school, or park would have to be shut down. In Southern California alone, that's a whole lot of wells. Here's a map giving you some idea of just how many:

Screenshot shows the location of oil wells in Southern California. (California Dept. of Conservation)

"California's climate policy won't be complete until the state address its own dirty oil extraction," said Kassie Siegel with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group allied with the South L.A. activists. "It's hard to be climate leader while also being a top oil producing state."

WAIT. HASN'T GOVERNOR BROWN DONE A TON TO FIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE?

Yes, he has.

  • He signed a law committing California to slashing its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
  • His administration heavily subsidizes electric vehicles and trucks.
  • New building codes passed this year require all new homes to have solar panels.
  • His attorney general, Xavier Becerra, is fighting to preserve California's strict greenhouse gas standards for cars, which the EPA is trying to repeal

We could go on, but you get the idea.

Still, protesters say this isn't enough. Martha Dina Argüello, the head of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles, says Governor Brown's climate policies aren't helping people who are most affected by oil drilling.

"The people who live near these oil wells, it's really time to put them first," she said.

HOW MUCH OIL DOES CALIFORNIA PRODUCE ANYWAY?

Look we're not Texas, but California is the number six oil-producing state in the country. The oil industry is about three percent of California's GDP and employs about 400,000 people, according to a study commissioned by the Western States Petroleum Association.

Argüello acknowledges that if oil drilling were to end, a lot of people could be out of work. But that's why she and other activists want what they call "a just transition" to help oil workers find new jobs.

"WE HAVE THE TOUGHEST RULES ON OIL."

Brown, meanwhile, thinks this idea is totally impractical. The last time protesters heckled him in public, at the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, he told them that would have devastating impacts on the economy. "If I could turn off the oil today, 32 million vehicles would stop!" he said.

Later, in an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now, he elaborated, "We have the toughest rules on oil. I don't think we should shut down oil in California and then take it from Venezuela, or places where the rules are even worse."

TL;DR

In short, Brown seems unlikely to ban oil drilling before he leaves office, especially given that existing climate policies will slash oil consumption over time. As a result, protesters are also focusing on cities like L.A. and asking them to phase out oil drilling — which the city is actually studying.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.


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