In 1966, when smog obscured the Los Angeles skyline and residents choked on noxious fumes, California enacted the country’s first clean air law. In 1970, a year after an oil spill tarred Santa Barbara’s pristine coastline, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed into law the California Environmental Quality Act, one of the toughest environmental laws to date.
Today, as climate change fuels the fires that rage from Seattle to San Diego, we have another opportunity to be a leader in environmental policy. For the last 15 years, our family foundation has funded climate research and solutions to improve our interconnected water, air, energy and food systems. The nightmare scenarios predicted for 2050 are already a reality. The experts and researchers we work with are frightened as global warming accelerates before our very eyes. California has the chance to lead again—but we’re not currently the environmental champion we once were.
We know that fossil fuels are at the root of global warming, yet few states or political leaders have been willing to address rampant oil and gas production or stop the corporate profiteering from unhealthy air quality, soil and water. As an economic powerhouse, California can prove that untethering our future from a polluting and corrupt industry is not only possible, but is also necessary to build the clean, renewable, more equitable energy future we want.
Following Europe’s lead and eventually banning the sale of internal combustion engines in cars would be a start, but California can do more: We can be the model for phasing out the production and use of fossil fuels in a smart transition that protects jobs, the environment and the health and safety of all Californians.
To start, California should stop issuing new permits to drill new oil and gas production wells. Our state remains one of the largest oil producing states in the country. The California Geologic Energy Management Division has continued to issue new permits this year—more than 1,500 since January, many in dense neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Bakersfield —yet only 30 new wells have been drilled. This slow drilling rate may be yet another indication that the industry is on shaky financial ground. At a time when the fossil fuel sector is facing financial ruin, abandoning workers and communities, and leaving tax-payers holding the bag for expensive cleanup, we should actively find a way to exist without them rather than continue to prop them up. Even major banks have grown weary of industry promises, backing out of risky projects like drilling in the Arctic. And most telling, some oil majors like British Petroleum have signaled that their future is not in fossil fuels.
In California, our addiction to fossil fuels can most clearly be seen in low-income communities, home to families that all too often bear the brunt of environmental injustices. Our foundation funded a recent study by University of California scientists that examined birth outcomes in rural and urban areas near active and inactive oil and gas sites. Researchers found that pregnant women living in rural California near active oil and gas wells were 40% more likely to give birth to low birth-weight babies.
Yet, California is one of the only major oil producing states in the country without a minimum set-back for oil wells in residential communities—a loophole in environmental policy that should be easily closed. Even Dallas, in the heart of oil country, requires a 1,500-foot buffer.
Though a process is underway to evaluate new safety regulations, CalGEM isn’t moving quickly enough. If the state would implement just a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer—less than half a mile—it would begin to protect these communities from continuing health harms.
The opportunities that can come from deep investment in a new clean economy far outweigh the downsides. Another study we supported by economist Frank Ackerman found that halting permits for new wells and enacting the 2500-foot health and safety buffer would result in a net gain of about 5,000 full-time jobs. California is home to more than 100,000 oil and gas wells that all need to be capped and remediated—at an estimated cost of $9.2 billion. If existing oil and gas workers were re-trained to do this remediation work, it could provide thousands of additional jobs in the industry during the transition, fully offsetting job losses for more than a decade.
While there no doubt are many policy pathways forward, none could send a more timely signal nor be a more important legacy for California than to be the first state to begin phasing out the fossil fuel industry. Critics will say that stopping oil production in California would be just a drop in the bucket, that other places drill more. But if history is any indication, regulations born in California can trickle upwards and inspire national and international laws, a pattern UCLA legal scholar Anne Carlson calls “iterative federalism.” In other words, when California leads, others follow.
Thoughtfully winding down the fossil fuel industry will strengthen our economy, protect public health and demonstrate to the rest of the country—and to ourselves—that positive, transformational change is possible.
Wendy Schmidt is president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, which works to create a just world where all people have access to renewable energy, clean air and water, and healthy food. She and her husband Eric are also co-founders of Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures.