Policy News

Newsom's call for fracking ban could lead to recall headache

 
  • Share

By  and 

02/16/2021 08:32 PM EST

SAN FRANCISCO — A proposed fracking ban promises to complicate Gov. Gavin Newsom's political calculations as a recall campaign gains steam.

Newsom called last year for state lawmakers to send him a ban on new hydraulic fracturing permits, and Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) is planning to introduce a bill Wednesday. It was already shaping up to be one of the biggest fights of the year in a Covid-restricted Legislature that has balked at previous attempts to rein in petroleum production.

But that was before Republicans had any traction on a recall petition that's snowballing into a credible threat, forcing Democrats to close ranks and defend Newsom.

Now, the progressive priority is on a collision course with the recall. The bill is a political hot potato for Newsom, with the potential to alienate Republicans in the oil-rich Central Valley, labor unions representing oil and gas workers and Newsom's progressive base.

Wiener's bill would complicate Newsom's path by creating new pitfalls on both sides — on the right, which is looking for ammunition to fuel opposition to the governor, but also on the left, where environmental justice and mainstream environmental groups have long called for a fracking ban.

"The problem for him now is he's trying to knock out any possibility of anybody from the left running at him," said Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio. "If there's a lot of noise on the left, that's problematic. Anything that fuels that fire does not make a happy day for Gavin Newsom."

If he tries to protect his left flank by backing the bill, he'll risk fanning the flames of the recall movement on the right, as well as labor allies that represent oil workers. "Embracing that alienates unions and alienates the Central Valley, and those are two sore spots for him," said Maviglio, who was press secretary for former Gov. Gray Davis before Davis was recalled in 2003. "It's a tough tightrope to walk."

Environmentalists are warning that the bill will be a heavy lift that Newsom will have to help push through the Capitol.

"He really is going to have to put his weight behind it if we're going to see movement in the Legislature," said Brian Nowicki, California climate policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the bill's backers.

Wiener's joint author, Sen. Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), acknowledged the potential effect of the recall on Newsom's engagement with the bill.

"I don't anticipate it's easy, but I'm still of the mind that if there's not a bill, there's not a conversation," she said in an interview. "So we at least have to have a conversation. As a Legislature, you're watching the federal administration, the Biden administration, move issues forward, and so where is that going to leave California?"

Last year, a bill to limit petroleum production by mandating minimum distances from homes, schools and other sensitive sites stalled under heavy pressure from the industry and unions representing oil workers. Labor representatives are preparing for a similar slugfest over fracking, an extraction process that involves blasting water and chemicals underground to break up rock formations.

"The ink won't be dry on that bill before I get my letter of opposition out," said Scott Wetch, a lobbyist representing plumbers and pipefitters. "There might not be a lot of oil and gas jobs in the city and county of San Francisco, but they need to start taking a holistic view of the economy in California and what's going on with working families who haven't paid a utility bill in five months and are behind on their mortgage."

The recall campaign has so far drawn contributions from only one petroleum company: Modesto-based Boyett Petroleum, which donated $49,000 last month. An oil industry representative who didn't want to be named because he was speaking without authorization, said the bill would exacerbate tensions between the state's coastal and inland regions. He also suggested that it would tap into California's class divide, taking a shot at Newsom's embarrassing dinner with lobbyists in November that helped propel the recall effort.

"If you look at the authors and proponents of the bill — where they're from and who they represent — compared to what this industry is, there's clearly a divide," said the representative, speaking anonymously to avoid negative repercussions. "You go to the French Laundry, that puts you in the elite category; you support putting hundreds of thousands of Californians out of a job and communities that need them ... that sends a message."

Environmentalists are already frustrated with Newsom. His oil agency missed a December due date to release setback rules, and they contend that he could have already used his executive authority to curb fracking or other similar practices. The governor has insisted that he needs the Legislature to act.

Regardless, Newsom has tied himself to a fracking ban by explicitly asking lawmakers to send him a ban as part of a September executive order directing the state to phase out internal-combustion vehicles.

"There's a pretty widespread belief that Newsom could have done this administratively," said Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, the sponsor of Wiener's bill. "My belief is because this policy is coming as a result of a direction from the governor, he has a responsibility to support it and to help make it happen."

While environmentalists aren't threatening to back the recall campaign, the fracking issue could bleed into the campaign, Maviglio said. "The proponents of that are extremely vocal, and he's had a semi-frosty relationship with the environmental community, the environmental justice community in particular," he said. "Campaign promises sometimes catch up with you."

Newsom said during his gubernatorial campaign that he opposed fracking, but like his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown, he has expressed concerns about the possibility that California will simply replace in-state oil with imports while it continues to rely on fossil fuels.

In July 2019, he said he wasn't a "big fan of fracking" but cast doubt on whether California should stop in-state production and instead import from other states and countries. His comments came after revelations that the state had accelerated the pace of drilling permits while top officials owned stock in petroleum companies.

"I know some people just want to turn things off and not deal with the consequences. I get that, but you can't do that," Newsom said. "And until you change behavior and create alternative means to move around, which we're committed to, I think you have to be thoughtful about this."

A year later, Newsom shifted his tone, citing record-setting wildfires as one justification for his move to ban new gasoline-fueled cars in 2035, connecting climate change to the state's oil reliance.

When announcing the executive order in September, he said fracking accounts for less than 2 percent of the state's fossil fuel production — a number that the oil industry source said was closer to 17 percent, which could up the ante for how significant a fracking ban would be.

Another oil industry representative pointed to the state's existing regulations on fracking. "If this is an administration that believes in science and champions climate, then ensuring Californians get their energy from locally produced oil under the toughest standards on the planet is the best choice for the environment and the economy," Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, said in a statement. "No adverse impacts from hydraulic fracturing in California has been demonstrated despite being done for decades."

Newsom's office didn't respond to a request for comment, and Wiener declined to comment. But observers expect the bill and the recall to force the conversation one way or another.

"It seems like there's going to be some finality to this for sure," said former Sen. Dean Florez, a Democrat from the oil-rich Bakersfield region who now sits on the state Air Resources Board, which is writing rules to phase out internal-combustion vehicles. "When it trades houses, we'll know if he's in the recall or not, and that'll change the calculus."

divider divider