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California’s new carbon capture-centered climate action plan draws heat from climate activists

In May, California released its blueprint for exactly how it will reach its legally-binding emission reduction targets and other climate goals bound through executive order.

While the plan is among the most ambitious from any state in the U.S., climate activists and environmental justice advocates are concerned that too much emphasis is being put on unproven technologies used by the oil and gas industry to offset emissions.

The blueprint is an updated scoping plan produced by the California Air and Resources Board or CARB. By law, the state must reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. In addition, 2045 is the year by which Governor Gavin Newsom has directed California to become carbon neutral.

The pressure is on, and while in many ways CARB’s draft envisions bold measures for tackling the climate crisis, many activists say some points increase the vulnerability of already underserved, low-income communities, significantly undermining the purpose of the plan.

The criticisms from climate activists came to a head in a meeting last month, according to a report in Inside Climate News.

Advocates are concerned despite being faced with a plan that calls for a rapid renewable energy buildout and a fast-paced phase-out of fossil fuels. Among its bold points, the plan lays out strategies to reduce state oil use by 91 percent over the next two decades -- investing in expansive public transit projects and committing to planting hundreds of thousands of trees to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

However, critics say the plan relies too heavily on carbon capture technologies to reach its goals. These carbon removal technologies are unproven and include measures that could worsen air quality in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Moreover, environmental justice advocates point out that a particular proposal in the plan would not only keep all of the state’s natural gas power plants online through 2045 but would add an additional 10 gigawatts of new gas-fired generating capacity. According to state officials, each gigawatt is roughly equivalent to the electricity generated by one nuclear power plant.

Research shows that power plants are disproportionately located near communities with high socioeconomic and environmental burdens.

“The plan on the table is grossly out of touch with the lived reality of communities that experience suffocating pollution and doubles down on fossil fuels at a time when California needs real climate solutions,” Martha Dina Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles said in a press release.

Arguello is also co-chair of the Air Resources Board Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, a citizen committee that advises the board on the scoping plan. “The state’s 20-year climate policy blueprint is a huge step backward for California, “ she said.

Martha Dina Arguello. Image Credit: Physicians for Social Responsibility -- Los Angeles

Los Angeles, one of many urban hubs in Southern California, was named the No. 1 most polluted city in the nation by the American Lung Association’s 2022 “State of the Air” report, leaving these residents direly in danger. In recent years, pollution has slightly worsened in communities of color, the report warned.

Still, CARB argues that keeping California’s gas fleet online remains the best option for meeting the state’s ambitious climate goals while staying on budget and addressing reliability issues. This is because, in recent years, California has struggled to reach increasing energy demands, especially as summers continue to heat up. Continuous droughts have hindered the state's ability to produce hydroelectric power. On top of all that, the water level of the Colorado River has reached a record low, federal officials report. If it falls any lower, Glen Canyon Dam will no longer be able to provide electricity to some 6 million people across seven states.

California’s energy demand is expected to swell. Between now and 2045, that increase will be roughly 65 percent, Stanley Young, CARB’s communications director, wrote in an email to Inside Climate News. CARB’s model shows that in order to meet the growing energy demand, gas generation will be needed while the state works on unprecedented amounts of new renewable energy.

These gas-generated plants will act as “peaker plants,” Young said, only turned to during periods of high demand or when renewable energy sources underperform, meaning that they will not run at capacity 24/7.

Nevertheless, environmental justice advocates remain skeptical of this reasoning, worrying that this is yet another case of California policymakers buckling their knees to the power of gas lobbyists at the expense of the state’s climate agenda.

Last August, for example, regulators updated California’s building code but declined to ban gas hookups in new construction, to the disappointment of advocates. March: for the first time ever, California received a near failing grade for its lack of progress on climate change, from EnviroVoters, an environmentalist watchdog group. The cause? Oil money and oil interests, Inside Climate reports.

In June, oil and gas were at the heart of decision-making again, as environmental groups criticized state lawmakers after a bill that would have forced California’s public pension systems to sell their oil and gas holdings was dropped from the agenda of a key committee hearing. In the same month, Governor Newsom signed an energy bill into law that would, in some ways, make it easier for state officials to buy electricity from beachfront gas plants and diesel generators.

All the while, these developments come as fossil fuel special interest groups pour millions of dollars with the hope of political influence. A report by EnviroVotes reveals that 63 percent of the state’s lawmakers have taken oil money, with oil industry groups spending almost $77.5 million in lobbying efforts from 2018 to 2021. At least $4.83 million was spent in the first quarter of the year alone for oil and gas industry lobbying efforts, as found in public documents obtained by Capital & Main, a Los Angeles-based investigative news outlet.

It's no surprise that advocates have trouble believing the heavy reliance on carbon removal technologies isn’t the product of intense lobbying efforts.

Carbon removal, which traps C02 emissions and stores them permanently, usually underground, has been criticized as an adaptation measure that does little to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The debate has been again spurred up with the launches of more and more carbon plants. Instead, many advocates and progressive groups, Greenpeace and among them, argue that it integrates fossil fuels as a part of the climate solution, as opposed to truly fighting to mitigate global warming. Thus, it should come as no shock that for years, the fossil fuel industry has promoted carbon removal as a valuable tool for fighting climate change.

More than $12 billion in federal investment for researching and developing the technologies appeared in last year’s infrastructure bill, signifying the recent mainstream popularity the tactic has received. According to Capital & Main’s analysis, industry groups have also pushed for broader adoption of the technologies in California this year. This wouldn’t be the first time the state has turned to carbon capture. In 2018, the state switched on a fleet of giant carbon removal machines, effectively turning farms into what Grist called “carbon-sucking factories.” Again in 2022, legislators have proposed a bill rallying for carbon farming, amid criticism.

While CARB’s plan has ambitious emission reduction goals, it in no way requires oil refiners—not to be confused with oil producers—to reduce any of their emissions through 2045. The reliance remains almost entirely on carbon removal.


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