On September 9, when news broke that one of the key provisions of state climate bill SB350 was being axed under pressure from the influential oil lobby, Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips had this to say, “The oil industry declared war on humanity more than a decade ago when it led efforts to deny climate change. This year, they have spent untold dollars to try to defeat a reasonable goal to reduce California’s dependence on oil in the transportation sector and continue our transition to cleaner fuels and more choice in travel.”
She has a point. According to a recent Inside Climate News investigative report, oil companies have known about the risks of climate change for decades. “There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” a senior company scientist named James F. Black told Exxon’s Management Committee back in July 1977. Exxon conducted early scientific research on climate change and could have used this knowledge to help the world solve this existential challenge. Instead, they have engaged in a long campaign of disinformation and deceit.
It is one thing to pursue oil development; it is quite another to interfere politically to undermine efforts to address climate change and the future livability of the planet. One is just business. The other is a threat to us all.
The failure of the climate bill provision to cut petroleum use in half, as well as the failure to extend SB-32, California’s existing greenhouse gas reduction law, illustrates the problem with Governor Brown’s wish to have it both ways — to increase oil production in the state while also showing climate leadership in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. It may make sense in theory, but the oil industry will not play fair. The more oil they produce, the more power they exert on our political system and the harder they work to ensure our continued reliance on fossil fuels. The oil industry spent $38,653,186 for lobbying and campaigns in California in 2014, a 129 percent increase from 2013. They are the strongest lobby in Sacramento.
Locally, a resurgent oil industry threatens our local political system as well. Since the failure in November 2014 of Measure P, which would have prohibited fracking and other high-intensity extraction techniques like cyclic steam injection in Santa Barbara County, applications for new oil wells have been pouring into the county — 855 wells in northern Santa Barbara County alone. Measure P failed after oil companies spent an unprecedented $7 million against it and threatened legal action. That threat was false. A nearly identical measure in San Benito County passed, and all legal cases against it have been dropped.
The risks from these new oil projects are not just the damage to our air, water, and health but to our political system. During the last Santa Barbara County Supervisor election, oil interests spent in excess of $200,000 in an attempt to unseat Supervisor Janet Wolf. If they succeed in buying enough politicians, they can undermine regulations and efforts to transition to clean energy. Already, politicians in North County have appointed oil company employees to the Air Pollution Control District Community Advisory Council where the polluters themselves guide regulations on their own industry.
We can’t let the oil industry get away with it, and when we fight back, we can win. Two important climate goals in SB350 — a 50 percent increase in clean energy and 50 percent increase in building efficiency — passed the State Legislature despite the oil industry’s influence. In Santa Barbara County we recently set the strictest regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from new oil projects in the state, sent a loud and clear message opposing the expansion of dangerous oil trains carrying climate-killing Canadian crude along our tracks, and got both Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties to kick off a study of Community Choice Energy to increase local renewable energy.
As we close out what is likely to be the hottest year on record, beating out the previous record-breaker, 2014, we need to do everything we can about the problem. We didn’t choose it, but climate change is the challenge of our time, clean energy is our future, and we can’t let one intransigent industry stand in the way.
Katie Davis is chair of the Santa Barbara Sierra Club and also a member of the Air Pollution Control District Community Advisory Council.