California oil fields

California Is Coming for Polluters


In California, a clean energy—and clean air—future may be closer after a sea of local wins last week. Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re celebrating.

Oil Fields #2, Belridge, California, USA, 2003. Photograph by © Edward Burtynsky Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Flowers Gallery, London

California is often hailed as a leader in environmental policy and protections. In many ways, the state is. Residential solar is excelling there. The future of cars is electric. Still, California is obsessed with fossil fuels.


It’s been producing less and less oil over the years, but California is still the sixth-largest oil producer in the U.S. In May 2020, the state produced 9.3 million barrels of oil. The emissions resulting from consuming all that oil is equivalent to more than 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted. And that’s only one month’s worth.


California governors haven’t taken the necessary initiative to reign down the fossil fuel industry. After all, carbon emissions are one part of the problem. Families who live near all this industry are worried about air pollution, which is especially urgent as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on in the state. Luckily, communities are seeing local leaders emerge who are promising to prioritize their health and well-being. Now, polluters are the ones who should be worrying. Their time is running out—despite pumping more than $7 million into state races.


Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re diving into the election wins across California. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos. Today, you’ll be meeting the faces of California’s clean energy future.



In the months and weeks leading up to Election Day, much of California was on fire. The day before voters turned out at the polls, the Chevron Richmond Refinery was flaring gas, which can lower air quality in the surrounding area. The inescapable presence of injustice has fueled voters in the state who don’t want to see their communities or lungs burn.


“This year has really showed us what’s at stake,” says Megan Zapanta, the Richmond organizing director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in California. “That’s why you’re seeing voters … really voting for progressive, corporate-free candidates.”


In Richmond, voters saw a number of victories. There was Claudia Jimenez, elected to the Richmond City Council. Her record is rooted in community organizing in the city. As an immigrant from Colombia, Jimenez brings a much-needed perspective onto the city council. When the refinery was flaring back in August, she spoke out via Facebook, noting that this deterioration in air quality is what puts residents at risk of COVID-19. Part of her goal is creating a Green New Deal for the city to help kick out polluters and infuse the economy. This is her first time in office, so we’ll have to see how her plan translates to action.


Still, she has a strong coalition of environmental leaders who also won this election to help guide her. They include incumbent Melvin Willis and Gayle McLaughlin for Richmond City Council. Both already have skin in the game of politics and have taken action to fight inequality within the city.


A little farther south in Los Angeles County—the second-highest oil and gas producing county in the state—women are in charge. The county board of supervisors there, a governing body with incredible power in the state, has its first all-women slate. Let’s focus on one woman in particular: Holly Mitchell.


As a senator in the state legislature, she voted for measures in support of racial justice, healthcare, and economic protection. During her campaign for L.A. County Board of Supervisors, she took zero fossil fuel donations. Most importantly, perhaps, Mitchell supports creating a 2,500-foot buffer zone between oil and gas infrastructure and the places community members gather: schools, places of worship, and clinics. You’d think this would already exist in California; it does not.


Meanwhile, in Ventura County—the fourth-largest oil and gas producing county in the state—Carmen Ramirez won a seat on her county board of supervisors. She’s lived in Ventura County since 1972 and wants to help see the county prepare for disaster. Wildfires are becoming a more frequent occurrence here, and many communities—especially Spanish-speaking ones—are not ready. She wants to see the county running on 100 percent clean energy by 2030. That’s a true Green New Deal.


In order for these officials to succeed, they’ll have to get the oil and gas industry in check. They’ll also need Gov. Gavin Newsom on board. Though he’s taken aggressive climate policy, such as phasing out gas-powered cars, he hasn’t gone so far as to plan for an end to the fossil fuel industry. That’s what needs to happen if the state is actually going to become a Green New Deal powerhouse. That’s what the communities closest to industry need if they’re going to live long, healthy, and full lives.


These victories show that California is one step closer to being a true champion of climate justice. Tomorrow, we’ll explore what climate justice looks like elsewhere in the U.S. after a sea of wins last week.

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