By Kevin Hall
California plays a critical role in the future of our planet. Widely regarded as one of the world’s leading governments among the many facing the parallel crises of destabilizing weather patterns and ecosystem collapse, our state’s policies shape those of elected bodies across the nation and beyond.
We have initiated a cap-and-trade system with other U.S. states and Canada, allowing pollution to continue in sacrifice zones here while claiming to reduce greenhouse gases thousands of miles away. This and other market-based schemes have resulted in a list of local offenses:
Dairy digesters. These worsen air and groundwater pollution while selling high-dollar credits for capturing a portion of their Olympic-pool-size manure lagoons’ methane and selling it as fuel. Tom Frantz of the Association of Retired Residents calls them “a grand scheme which greenwashes the continued use of fossil fuel.”
Frantz, who has been sounding the alarm on mega-dairies since they emerged in the late 1990s, said, “The carbon trading scheme known as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard allows major fossil fuel companies like Chevron and Sempra Energy to offset and continue to sell their carbon-intense products because they get a negative carbon credit by paying for dairy methane collectors.”
He points out this methane replaces a minuscule fraction of total transportation fuel and the cost is transferred to ratepayers. “It is also a subsidy to unsustainable factory farms that continue to pollute land, air and water in the San Joaquin Valley besides decreasing only a fraction of their GHG emissions.”
Biomass. A state-subsidized biomass plant is paid to truck, grind and burn ag and forest waste in Malaga, producing electricity with coal mine–level impacts on the climate while showering low-opportunity neighborhoods with pollutants.
Water. Rural communities go without clean water while the state underwrites solar-powered wells for farms that allow them to escape the old costs of diesel and electricity bills; so they drill deeper and deeper.
High-speed rail. HSR draws down $100 million per year in California “climate investment” funds while impacting vulnerable Fresno residents with construction diesel and dust, and emitting vast amounts of GHGs never to be offset.
“Air pollution from construction is being offset by funds to the Air District, who gives the money to farmers for new diesel equipment instead of requiring farmers to solve their own pollution issues,” said Frantz, who farms almonds in Kern County but was recently forced by air pollution to leave the Valley.
“The diesel engines used in construction are not all the cleanest available either. They just must be cleaner than the current average for all such equipment being used elsewhere.”
2050. Most important, the state is nowhere near to achieving the reductions necessary in this decade to have done its part in protecting our children’s lives. According to Energy Innovation, we’re going to miss it by 50 years.
Babies being born today will live to see the world of 2100 and the prognosis is grim. We are failing them.
Our always changing, forever campaigning politicians are to blame, of course, but we’re responsible. We elect them. We overlook their misdeeds and worse. And because they’re in power, advocates must often mute their criticism because they have to continue working with them on other issues on behalf of other people.
To address the climate and ecosystem crises, true political leaders must emerge immediately and false ones replaced. The Valley’s three gushers of failed leadership are Michael Rubio (State Senate), Henry T. Perea (State Assembly) and Willie Rivera (Bakersfield City Council). No longer in office, all three quit their elected posts a year early to take high-paying jobs in the oil and methane industry, with a brief detour through pharmaceutical lobbying for Perea, but they are still wielding direct influence in local politics throughout the region.
Perea just last year donated $1,500 directly to his sister Annalisa’s campaign for Fresno City Council. Tyler Maxwell’s successful March 2020 run to replace Paul Caprioglio on the City Council included a special Perea mailer, paid for in part by the Chevron lobbyist. Rivera has moved money to Fresno City Council Member Esmeralda Soria and she to him, as reported in the May 2019 issue of Community Alliance.
Rubio quit first in 2014 and Perea followed a year later.
Rubio went to Chevron and remains there. The back-slapping Perea, always laughing and saying, “You’re killing me,” spent a year as a pharmaceutical lobbyist, five more at Western States Petroleum Association, and joined Rubio at Chevron last year, according to his sister’s campaign finance records at the City of Fresno Netfile.
Rivera quit the Bakersfield City Council in May 2020 as the pandemic surged, abandoning residents of that city’s most vulnerable district to join Aera Energy. His abdication of responsibility in the face of Covid-19 reveals flaws shared by a raft of local politicians.
The pipeline to Sacramento is lined with crude oil, powered by methane, and like political pipelines the world over it needs to be blocked, broken and dismantled. Many of these politicians, including the current Valley delegation of Democrats to the statehouse and D.C., are doing more harm than good.
Where might California be by now if Perea hadn’t led the effort to block SB 350’s transportation sector reductions six years ago while in the Assembly and derail an anti-fracking bill? This parent is now paid handsomely to persuade current and future statehouses that “jobs, jobs, jobs” in any form are more important than any other consideration, including the lives of this generation.
The persuasion used by oil and methane interests comes in the form of money. Campaign cash contributions, in-kind support and massive independent expenditure committees to bypass contribution limits support fossil-friendly pols and attack green energy backers.
The result is a political culture corrupted by lobbyists in which the lobbyists are the former elected officials themselves. The corruption’s broad sweep includes federal officeholders like Rep. Jim Costa (D–Fresno) and former Congressional member Cal Dooley.
Dooley, who had many current officeholders serve as aides in his D.C. office, now heads the American Chemical Council, a major backer of the Trump 2017 tax cuts and worse. Costa has worked for years to weaken the Clean Air Act’s deadlines and penalty provisions, and while serving in the California Assembly initially refused to carry the legislation needed to create the unified San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
And now, like the fracking wells pumping toxic chemicals into an aquifer, oil and methane money have polluted the entire ecosystem. As illustrated, the major corporations move a small bucket of their massive profits into their political action committees and campaign accounts of state officeholders.
From there, it is poured out in small dollops to up-and-comers in the system; they’re being politically watered with oil. The money’s source is quickly forgotten, and now many local officeholders are unaware that they, too, have been anointed by the hidden hand of Chevron courtesy of Perea and Rubio.
Consider the Fresno Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee. According to City of Fresno Netfile records, since May 2018 the PAC has raised just under $250,000. Of that total, Chevron Corporation has donated $200,000, or 80%. The PAC is drenched in oil and methane money and so are its recipients.
While it gives the vast majority of its funds to Republicans, Fresno City Council representatives Luis Chavez and Nelson Esparza maxed out at $4,400 each from the Chamber PAC in 2018 and Miguel Arias accepted $1,000. Maxwell maxed out post-election at $4,700 in 2020. Interestingly, the PAC gave $200 to another PAC, the San Joaquin Valley Latino Leaders.
A much smaller organization, the SJV Latino Leaders PAC has received $4,500 from the Chevron-backed California Independent Petroleum Association since 2016; Aera Energy’s Rivera was employed there at the time (yes, while serving on the Bakersfield City Council, a job he took after winning his election only to quit when the pandemic hit).
The PAC has dispersed oleaginous offerings to candidates for offices from park board to college trustee ranging from Bakersfield to Madera in amounts as low as $250 on up to $1,000. Bakersfield City Council Member Eric Arias, Sanger City Council Member Esmeralda Hurtado, Fresno Unified School District Trustee Claudia Casarez, former Selma City Council member Louis Franco and other presumably good Democrats are unaware of the sludge seeping into their political campaign accounts.
The amounts are small, almost insignificant. It’s the same at the state officeholder level. The contributions aren’t really needed to win office. They are a test of fealty to a dying industry, or if not dying, at least a deadly one struggling to hold on at any cost.
The only way for politicians to stop taking oil and methane money is if we demand they do. That is a basic first step to get to the policies needed to save the future.
Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics on KFCF 88.1 FM every second and fourth Friday, 5 p.m.–6 p.m. He tweets as @airfrezno and @sjvalleyclimate, coordinates an informal network of climate activists at www.valleyclimate.org and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for presentations and information.