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Can California Kick the Oil Habit?

As the nation's third largest oil producer, California has a long history with the oil industry, yet it's also the birthplace of the American environmental movement. Lisa Margonelli makes the case for the Golden State reducing its oil addiction.
November 15, 2015, 1pm PST | Irvin Dawid
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"The history and idea of California are so tied up with oil—from the oil fields of Bakersfield and Signal Hill to millionaires like J. Paul Getty and Armand Hammer to the state’s famous car-and-freeway culture—that it is hard to imagine the state without oil," writes Lisa Margonelli, an energy policy expert, author, and former Atlantic writer. "But that is exactly what many Californians are imagining."

The comprehensive piece on Zócalo Public Square is focused somewhat on Santa Barbara, beginning with the May oil pipeline spill and the devastating 1969 offshore oil spill.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, national environmental groups focused their energy on reducing oil drilling in the U.S. while oil consumption and imports grew. But Santa Barbara’s independent environmental groups remained committed to “Getting Oil Out”—entirely, not just reducing oil drilling.

Interestingly, not much has changed, as noted by the recent federal legislation, "Keep it in the Ground Act." And some might question whether Santa Barbara's opposition is confined to oil or to anything harming the coast—which includes what some consider the modern day equivalent to oil derricks, offshore wind farms.

Fast forward to the passage of landmark renewable energy and energy efficiency legislation that initially included reducing oil consumption by 50 percent in 15 years. "SB 350’s radical prescription on oil use was defeated politically, without a vote, in part by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA)" which ran a successful campaign to convince so-called "moderate Democrats" to drop the oil reduction provision under the guise it would increase oil prices.

But outside of Sacramento, Californians just aren’t that into oil anymore: Between 2008 and 2014, the country’s highest gas prices led drivers to decrease their gas consumption by a billion gallons a year.

The trend has not continued, sadly. Even a year before gas prices plummeted in July, 2014, gas consumption began to increase.

Perhaps California's dual role as a major oil producer and environmental leader is best illustrated with none other than the driving force behind California's climate legislation, Gov. Jerry Brown. While striving to reduce oil consumption, as noted in his January inaugural speech, it was revealed by the San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 12 that "last year (he) asked the head of California’s oil regulating agency to study the history of oil and natural gas drilling near his family’s land in Colusa County."

Hat tip: Fred Huette, Sierra Club International Climate and Energy Committee

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Published on Thursday, November 12, 2015 in Zocalo Public Square
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