If Jerry Brown Is So Green, Why Is He Allowing Fracking in California?
It figured to be a lovefest when Jerry Brown stepped up to the microphone at the California Democratic Party’s convention in March. He was kicking off his campaign for a fourth term as governor of the state that ranks as the world’s eighth-largest economy and perhaps its leading environmental trendsetter—a reputation Brown himself helped create during his first two terms as governor, from 1975 to 1983, when he rejected nuclear power, championed wind and solar, and shrank California’s electricity demand without slowing the economy.
Brown began his twelve-minute speech by touting the economic achievements that make him the heavy favorite to win re-election in November. “California is back!” he shouted, citing the 1 million new jobs that have been added since the recession and the budget surplus that allowed the state to establish a rainy-day fund.
But the celebratory mood didn’t last. Discussing the historic drought now gripping California, Brown pledged to manage the state’s water “in a careful, efficient and wise way.”
Which is when the hecklers struck. Shouts of “No fracking!” and “Ban fracking!” rang through the hall.
“I got it,” said Brown, raising his hands to quiet the outburst. Pressing ahead, he said: “A key challenge facing California is not just drought today. It’s climate change, now and forever.”
Strong words, but they triggered more shouts of “No fracking!” Brown looked annoyed. His own voice rising, he shot back: “I challenge anybody to find any other state” that’s doing as much against climate change as California is. The governor cited his goals of reducing the state’s CO2 emissions by 25 billion tons by 2020, while obtaining at least 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. California, he added, has 30 percent of the country’s electric cars, and it encourages energy-efficient buildings and appliances. But the shouts of “No fracking!” continued.
Would that it were so simple, responded Brown, adding that no “one thing” is enough to fix climate change. The governor concluded by urging “every one of you in this room to join in a crusade to protect our climate…. And keep protesting,” but add a lot more stuff.
“We wanted to send the governor a message that climate leaders don’t frack,” said RL Miller, who as chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus helped organize the protest. “Fracking in California is aimed at oil, not at natural gas like in other parts of the US,” Miller told The Nation, “and the climate impact of fracking the Monterey Shale”—a deposit that covers much of the Central Valley and has been projected to contain nearly half as much oil as Saudi Arabia—“would be as bad or worse than building the Keystone XL pipeline. If we can’t stop fracking in California, with our environmental ethos and a governor who’s doing good things on climate change, where can we stop it?”
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“There are still a lot of people who don’t know what fracking is,” said Dan Jacobson, the legislative director of the nonprofit Environment California. “Half of them think ‘fracking’ is either a bad word or part of the vocabulary on Battlestar Galactica,” a TV show whose sci-fi characters use “frack” as a substitute for the F-word.
Jacobson and other environmentalists argue that the climate crisis does not allow any expansion of fracking, and they recently received inadvertent support from none other than President Obama. In an interview for the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, Obama stressed that avoiding the worst damages of climate change requires limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Saying “science is science,” Obama added that he accepted the latest scientific finding that respecting the 2°C target means that no more than one-third of the earth’s known fossil-fuel reserves can be consumed prior to 2050. “We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” Obama said. “Over the course of the next several decades, we’re going to have to build a ramp from how we currently use energy to where we need to use energy…so that you have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon.”
This new scientific imperative—to leave two-thirds of known fossil fuels in the ground—has not yet penetrated most policy discussions, much less media coverage and public awareness, but its implications are staggering. Among other things, it all but rules out fracking. After all, if humanity can burn only one-third of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels, which are largely accessible already, what role is there for a technology whose sole purpose is to extract exceptionally hard-to-reach deposits of oil and gas?
Unlike conventional oil drilling, fracking injects vast amounts of water, sand and industrial chemicals such as benzene into the earth at extremely high pressure, shattering rock and freeing the oil or gas below to be pumped to the surface. In effect, fracking creates new reserves of product that energy companies can bring to market—which is what makes it incompatible with the 2°C target. “Fracking is all about accessing the remaining two-thirds of earth’s fossil fuels,” said Jacobson. “Instead of finding new ways to get fossil fuel out of the ground, we need to focus on rapidly developing clean energy sources.”
How does Jerry Brown square his call for a “crusade to protect our climate” with allowing fracking in California? The closest the governor has come to answering that question publicly was in a radio interview conducted shortly after the heckling incident at the Democratic convention. Brown was asked, “Can you really have a meaningful climate-change pact if you don’t address fracking?” He replied, “The premise of that assertion is that climate change is primarily about fracking. And that’s the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard.”