In mid-June, an important California bill aimed at reducing deadly carbon emissions was single-handedly crushed midair by the chair of the Assembly Committee on Public Employment and Retirement, Assembly Member Jim Cooper (D–Elk Grove).
Current Assembly rules give unilateral authority to the chairs of committees to allow or disallow bills to be considered and voted on. Cooper entirely disallowed Senate Bill 1173, California’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Act of 2022, to be heard in his committee and thereby prohibited it from proceeding at all.
This is important news because it keeps California’s environment endangered and its future uncertain.
SB 1173, introduced by State Senator Lena Gonzalez (D–Long Beach) in February, would have prohibited the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) from investing in fossil fuel companies. It would have required that they divest any current investments in fossil fuel companies by 2030.
We are talking billions of dollars. And there has been overwhelming public support for such an initiative as Californians learn more about the harmful and long-lasting effects of anthropogenic carbon emissions from fossil fuels and their role in global warming and permanent climate change.
Californians know that we need to aggressively shift away from fossil fuels now to save our planet. Divesting in fossil fuel companies is an important first step. SB 1173 passed the State Senate in May and was on track to becoming law until it was abruptly sidelined by Cooper.
This political move was a shock to the positive momentum and progress that California is making in the protection and conservation of its environment. But it wasn’t so surprising after it was revealed that Cooper had received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies.
Sierra Club California disclosed in its Tracking the Dirty Dollars project that “Assemblymember Jim Cooper, a Democratic favorite of the oil and gas industry, reported $36,350 in contributions from polluters and their friends.”
It’s unfortunate that a single committee chair has the sole authority to cancel such a crucial bill in our current legislature. But no chairperson can cancel a movement.
“As a leader in the fight against climate change,” said Gonzalez back in February, “California must align the investment choices we make with our moral and environmental goals…
“Investing billions in the fossil fuel companies that are polluting our environment while at the same time trying to meet ambitious emissions-reduction goals is contradictory and incongruous.”
Groups such as Fossil Free California rallied behind Gonzalez and are committed to ending financial support for climate-damaging fossil fuel companies. These anti-environment, carbon-producing companies lobby strongly against any legislation that attempts to address the current climate crisis. Which is why the fight is not over.
Next year, advocates for the environment will again introduce legislation for the divestment of fossil fuel companies. There is a commitment to saving our planet while focusing first on saving our state.
Of course, this imperative move away from fossil fuels is backed by good science, not politics.
In April, a group of distinguished California climate change scientists and experts wrote Governor Newsom an urgent letter asking him to take executive action regarding our fossil fuel emergency.
They pleaded: “The oil industry drills in our neighborhoods, pollutes our air, soil and water, and harms public health. It fuels the growing climate crisis that is taking lives, destroying homes and jeopardizing our future—with harms falling on Latinx, Black, Indigenous and low-income communities first and worst.
“We implore you and your administration to use executive authority to lead the state in a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels, oversee a clean renewable energy build-out, and put public health, safety and a livable future first.”
The climate crisis is real. And these Earth scientists know this. Hundreds of leading California climate change scientists are concerned. In the letter to Governor Newsom, they emphasized: “California’s oil industry has created a public health and environmental justice crisis in our state.
“From Los Angeles to Kern County to the Bay Area, more than seven million Californians, totaling 18% of the population, live within a mile of at least one oil or gas well.” The social implications are stark.
The scientists explained: “A long history of environmental racism has concentrated oil and gas wells, refineries and other fossil fuel infrastructure—with all their adjacent harms—in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. In California, the majority of residents living closest to oil and gas extraction sites are people of color.”
Section One of the proposed fossil fuel divestment bill was direct in the scope of the problem: “The combustion of coal, oil and natural gas, known as fossil fuels, is the single largest contributor to global climate change” and “climate change affects all parts of the California economy and environment.”
The proposed act also clearly emphasized the fact that “the production of fossil fuels and the effects of climate change resulting from the use of fossil fuels all lead to disproportionate adverse impacts on low-income communities and communities of color.”
All of which is why it is even more troubling that Assembly Member Cooper, a Black man and active member of California’s Legislative Black Caucus, decided to stop SB 1173 in its tracks.
California politicians need to choose people over profits. California voters must ensure this.