Oil in California: will the real Jerry Brown please stand up

Recent comments by Jerry Brown were bold indeed for an elected state governor, especially one whose state currently is one of the top producers of oil and gas:

“One-third of the oil that we know exists as reserves can never be taken out of the ground. Fifty percent of the gas can never be used.  [Yet] we have very powerful opposition that spends billions on trying to … elect troglodytes and other deniers of the obvious science,” Brown said.  

You would never hear such a statement from the governor of Texas, where, for example, groundwater district managers know the score: “We’re not trying to interfere with the commerce of oil and gas. That’s impossible. We’re in Texas – hello”.  And where local elected officials have recently seen the effectiveness of the oil and gas industry’s checkbook first-hand – “The oil and gas industry are utilizing the lack of diligence and gullibility of state government – who are bought and paid for by industry to get what they want”.  

Nor would you hear a peep from the governor of North Dakota, home to the Bakken, “the most dangerous oil field to work in the U.S., where the energy producers never pay for their mistakes”, and where “farmers and ranchers are reporting about 150 oil spills every month, including a recent spill that saw nearly one million gallons flood into a farmer’s field”.  

North Dakota is also the state where state officials conditionally approve oil waste disposal wells even after they don’t meet widely accepted pressure testing standards.

So, Governor Brown says bold things on climate, that we should “leave it in the ground,” but that's not what goes on before and after the big speeches at the Vatican. Sadly, recent events show a side of the Brown administration that indicates California is not that different from Texas or North Dakota.

For example, recently, a Central Valley water district board ignored its own staff recommendation and voted to let oil waste disposal continue for another 2 and ½ years without taking immediate action to stop pollution of groundwater because enforcing the rules would cause “undue economic hardship” on oil companies.  

Or a new report released by the state itself, which found that most fracking waste was dumped in unlined pits, putting California’s dwindling water resources at risk. 

And then Governor Brown’s regulatory officials declined to wait for that state-mandated scientific report and issued oil well permitting regulations anyway, they drew a lawsuit.  Those very same regulations are already the subject of another lawsuit, filed by the Center for Race, Poverty and Environment against Governor Brown and his regulatory officials, arguing that the regulations illegally discriminate against Latino public school children by allowing wells too close to schools.  

Another aspect of the governor’s oil and gas regulatory team has been under fire for over a year, with critical EPA reviews and lawsuits that eventually resulted in an emergency shutdown of 12 Kern County oil waste injection wells. One of these lawsuits raises the question of whether the governor himself was involved in a criminal effort to “preserve and expand the ability [of the oil companies] to inject underground chemicals and toxic waste, thereby expanding their oil production and maximizing profits, by making false and deceptive statements and concealing documents.”

That sure sounds a lot like the deniers of science that Governor Brown rightly called out in his Vatican speech. 

But what about the money?  The oil industry spent an amazing $266 million influencing California politics from 2005 to 2014, according to an analysis of California Secretary of State data, including $38.65 million for lobbying and campaigns in 2014.  Nearly $2.5 million went as contributions to the Governor and his causes.

And finally, residents of a low-income South Los Angeles community are asking Pope Francis to intervene to prevent an oil operation from reopening two years after its noxious emissions sickened neighbors.  

So, who is the real Jerry Brown, the one who makes strong speeches about keeping fossil fuels in the ground, or the one whose policies show almost no difference with those industry-friendly states of Texas and North Dakota? 

It’s a tough question. Certainly, the LA Times has its doubts:  “It has long been apparent that a moratorium on major new fracking is in order until more is known about its risks and benefits.”