A recent San Diego Union-Tribune story asked the question that’s been on a lot of minds recently: After last month’s Huntington Beach spill, is oil in California at its end?
Given the state’s focus on the environment, the answer is likely a booming “Yes.”
Three years ago, Rep. Ro Khanna and Rep. Barbara Lee sent then-Gov. Jerry Brown a letter, asking him to end “the issuance of new permits for fossil fuel development and infrastructure” because doing so would “establish the standard for climate policy worldwide.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’d made it clear he didn’t see a role for fracking in the state’s future and further declared that “California needs to move beyond oil.”
Then last month, Consumer Watchdog, responding to the Orange County spill, argued that it’s become “clear like never before that there is no such thing as safe proximity to oil drilling,” and insisted that “Newsom must stop issuing both offshore and onshore permits immediately.”
If California refuses to capitalize on its bounty of crude, it will have to increase its consumption of oil produced elsewhere, which will mean higher prices in the state that already has the most expensive gasoline and diesel in the country. The loss of a local supply will have no effect on local demand.
Only five other states have more proved crude reserves than California. But in-state production has dropped steadily after peaking about 40 years while it has soared in Texas, New Mexico, North Dakota, and other oil-rich states. The keep-it-in-the-ground crowd, which has nearly unchallenged political clout in Sacramento, considers this a feature rather than a bug.
Seven of every 10 barrels of oil produced in California, and 3 percent of the nationwide total, is pulled out of Kern County. It is seventh among all top oil-producing counties in the country. Roughly 25,000 jobs in the county, many of them high-paying positions, are connected directly and indirectly to the oil-and-gas industry. The benefits of California oil, however, go far beyond Kern County.
Across the state, 50,000 work in the industry. While we think of crude primarily in terms of pumping gasoline, only two-thirds of petroleum consumption is used for transportation, and less than half is burned as motor fuel. Other uses important to the modern California lifestyle include the manufacture of telephones, movie film, cameras, solar panels, wind turbines, and a literal laundry list of everyday household and consumer items.
California will be happy to rely on other states and countries to provide the crude for these wares. It seems the mindset is that what happens outside the borders stays outside. The dirty mining in China and the Third World that’s needed to deliver raw materials used in renewable energy is unnoticed by most Californians, as does the explosion of coal plant construction in China and India.
Maybe most Californians expect that after 2035, demand for gasoline and diesel will fall sharply simply because Newsom issued an order banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles. It takes a certain degree of faith, though, to believe that the ban can realistically be implemented.
None of the above is intended to minimize oil spills. We all would rather the environment and wildlife remain unharmed. There is no way to provide energy without risk. Wind turbines probably chop up more than 1 million birds a year. Solar farms kill animals and destroy their natural surroundings. Both eat up enormous parcels of land, far more than natural gas power plants, and are creating waste disposal problems. They’re also risky because both provide energy only intermittently.
Yet oil is the chosen villain in California. It will be missed when it’s gone.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.