California Released a Bold Climate Plan, but Critics Say It Will Harm Vulnerable Communities and Undermine Its Goals

Environmental justice and climate advocacy groups say the draft plan relies too heavily on carbon capture and could increase pollution in low-income neighborhoods.

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The sun shines over towers carrying electrical lines August 30, 2007 in South San Francisco, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The sun shines over towers carrying electrical lines August 30, 2007 in South San Francisco, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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A public hearing last month turned into the latest flashpoint between California regulators and a coalition of environmental and social justice activists over how the state should achieve its ambitious climate agenda.

In May, the California Air and Resources Board—or CARB—updated its so-called scoping plan, which acts as a blueprint for how the Golden State will reach a slew of legally binding emissions reduction targets and other climate goals set by executive order. By law, California must reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has also directed the state to become carbon neutral by 2045.

In many ways, CARB’s draft plan offers a bold vision for tackling the climate crisis. But at a June 23 hearing, activists once again voiced their concerns over measures included in the plan that they say significantly undermine its purpose, and threaten to harm the state’s most vulnerable communities.

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State officials and energy experts alike have said meeting California’s climate goals would require a massive buildout of renewable energy and a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels. To that end, the updated blueprint proposes several bold strategies, including ramping down statewide oil use by 91 percent over the next two decades, investing in massive public transit expansion projects and committing to planting hundreds of thousands of new trees to help soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But critics say CARB’s plan relies too heavily on unproven carbon removal technologies and includes measures that could worsen air quality in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

“The state’s 20-year climate policy blueprint is a huge step backward for California,” Martha Dina Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles and co-chair of the Air Resources Board Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, a citizen committee that advises the board on the scoping plan, said in a press release following the hearing. “The plan on the table is grossly out of touch with the lived reality of communities that experience suffocating pollution and doubles down on fossil fuels at a time when California needs real climate solutions.”

In particular, environmental justice advocates point to a proposal in the plan that would not only keep all of the state’s natural gas power plants online through 2045, but would add an additional 10 gigawatts of new gas-fired generating capacity. Each gigawatt is roughly equivalent to the electricity generated by one nuclear power plant, according to state officials.

Recent research has shown that California’s gas power plants are disproportionately located near communities with high, cumulative socioeconomic and environmental burdens. And any new gas turbines are likely to be added to existing plants, rather than building new plants to accommodate them, to avoid the additional cost and wait time associated with lengthy state and federal permitting processes, said Ari Eisenstadt, a campaign manager with the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

“It’s a lot easier to add on to existing power plants, to add additional generating capacity, than it is to permit an entirely new plant,” Eisenstadt said. “In all likelihood, this is going to really impact low-income communities of color in Southern California,” where “there’s already a really high concentration of gas-fired power plants.”

It’s an especially dire concern for residents living in urban hubs in Southern California, like Los Angeles, which was named the No. 1 most polluted city in the nation by the American Lung Association’s 2022 “State of the Air” report. The annual survey also warned that air pollution had worsened slightly in recent years for communities of color, largely due to climate change—a reminder that the stakes over policymaking can often be higher for certain communities.

But CARB has argued that keeping California’s gas fleet online remains the best option for meeting the state’s ambitious climate goals, while staying on budget and addressing reliability issues.

California has struggled in recent years to maintain a reliable flow of electricity to residents amid surging demand in the summer, as sweltering heat pushes up air conditioner use and raging wildfires test the resiliency of the state’s aging grid. The continuing drought has also hindered the state’s ability to produce hydroelectric power. In May, federal officials warned that the water level of the Colorado River had reached a record low, and that if it fell any further, the Glen Canyon Dam would no longer be able to provide electricity to some 6 million people across seven states.

The amount of hydroelectric power that California uses varies year to year based on precipitation levels, but in some years nearby dams have produced upwards of 22 percent of the state’s power mix, meaning that losing that source could be a major loss of clean energy.

Compounding these issues is the fact that California energy demand is expected to grow 68 percent between now and 2045, Stanley Young, CARB’s communications director, said in an email to Inside Climate News. The agency’s modeling showed that additional gas generation would be needed to meet that growing demand as the state worked to build unprecedented amounts of new renewable energy, he said, and also to act as “peaker plants” that only turn on during periods of high demand or when renewable energy is underperforming.

In fact, Young said, CARB’s plan is to increasingly use California’s gas fleet as backup power, phasing down how often the plants are used as more renewable energy is added to the mix. “That does not mean this backup capacity is going to run all the time,” he said, adding that the agency’s “emissions modeling shows actual natural gas electricity production is reduced over time.”

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Still, environmental activists remain skeptical that the board is being forthright in its reasoning. For years, environmental groups have urged utility regulators to adopt battery storage to deal with reliability issues rather than to build new gas peaker plants, noting that the price of batteries has fallen dramatically in recent years. Some also worry that the draft plan is another sign that California policymakers are balking under the pressure of a powerful gas lobby at the expense of the state’s climate agenda.

Last August, clean energy advocates expressed disappointment after regulators updated California’s building code but declined to ban gas hookups in new construction. In March, an environmental watchdog group gave California a near-failing grade for the first time for the state’s lack of progress on climate change. And in June, environmental groups criticized state lawmakers after a bill that would have forced California’s public pension systems to sell their oil and gas holdings was dropped from the agenda of a key committee hearing, signaling that the legislation wouldn’t be moving forward this year.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom also signed into law a new energy bill that, in some ways, makes it easier for state officials to buy electricity from beachfront gas plants and diesel generators.

These developments come as fossil fuel special interest groups spend millions of dollars every year hoping to influence public policy in their favor. According to the report from EnviroVoters, the group that gave California its near-failing grade in March, 63 percent of the state’s lawmakers have taken oil money, with oil industry groups spending almost $77.5 million in lobbying efforts from 2018 to 2021. Public documents obtained by Capital & Main, a Los Angeles-based investigative news outlet, also revealed that the oil and gas industry spent at least $4.83 million for lobbying efforts in the first quarter of this year alone.

For Eisenstadt, the California Environmental Justice Alliance campaign manager, the latest draft scoping plan’s heavy reliance on carbon removal technologies constitutes evidence that those lobbying efforts are working.

Carbon removal works by either trapping carbon dioxide emissions before they leave a facility or pulling them directly out of the air. The emissions are then—at least theoretically—stored somewhere permanently, such as underground. 

For years, the fossil fuel industry has promoted carbon removal as a valuable tool for fighting climate change. And the tactic has gained mainstream traction in recent years, with more than $12 billion in federal investment for researching and developing the technologies in last year’s infrastructure bill. Industry groups also pushed for broader adoption of the technologies in California this year, according to the disclosure forms analyzed by Capital & Main.

CARB’s plan envisions using such technologies to sequester nearly 80 million tons of the state’s carbon dioxide emissions by 2045. In fact, the plan doesn’t require California’s oil refiners—not to be confused with oil producers—to reduce any of their emissions through 2045, relying almost entirely on the use of carbon removal technologies to rein in that industry’s carbon footprint.

But environmentalists have long objected to carbon removal technologies, saying they are expensive, difficult to scale and distract from proven solutions such as switching to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Progressive climate groups like Greenpeace and have also accused oil companies of promoting the technologies as a way to avoid phasing out their products.

It’s a view that Eisenstadt holds as well. Carbon removal “is incredibly expensive and very difficult to get right, and there aren’t really many examples of it working right now,” he said,  “especially at this scale that CARB is talking about.”

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