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California’s Energy Transition from Oil State to Fossil Free: Introduction Part Five—Conclusion
This concluding part of the introduction discusses California’s increasing reliance on executive power in its developing role as a global energy and climate leader.
California’s self-proclaimed position as a “global leader in combating the climate crisis” demonstrates the ambitions of state policymakers and their view of California as a “nation state.” California’s role in global energy and climate policy is nothing new. The state has arguably been the center of the global energy for most of its history, changing from a center of global oil production during the late 19th century to a center of emerging energy technologies, regulations, and efforts to address climate change.
Nonetheless, the state’s ambitions must be pursued in a federal system in which state and federal policy often conflict. Regional and economic interests also bring political challenges, as California political leaders have followed legislative failures with executive actions to implement the state’s most ambitious goals. This reliance on the executive orders rests on shakier ground, as these orders can be repealed by future governors.
Despite pursuing an energy policy that is often independent of the federal government, California cannot escape the international economic and geopolitical impact of global energy. In fact, the state’s efforts to reduce oil production have exposed it to greater geopolitical risks. Its foreign oil imports have tripled in the past 20 years. Since 2012, California has imported more than half of its oil each year except for 2020. With the efforts to reduce and eliminate the use and production of oil, there are concerns that the state’s reliance on oil imports will only grow.
The state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) has made the state more reliant on imports of lighter oil from OPEC countries and has discouraged the use of heavier crude oil produced in the state or imported from Canada. California does not have pipelines to import domestically produced oil and must import oil shipped in supertankers from Alaska and from OPEC countries. Shipping, however, brings additional environmental concerns from ship emissions and the risk of oil spills.
The global energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and record-high gasoline prices have also complicated California’s efforts to reduce oil production and use. There are claims that a restoration of California oil production could replace the lost Russian oil it imports. In March 2022, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield in Kern County, sent a letter to Newsom stating that the United States must replace Russian oil imports with “cleaner American energy that can be produced in California by Californians.” McCarthy also argued that increased domestic oil production could help “blunt increases in already-soaring gas prices seen across our state.”
Oil industry supporters have also argued that California oil is produced under a stricter regulatory standards than foreign oil, although reports have indicated that California oil is increasing in carbon intensity and is dirtier than oils refined here from other states and countries. Nonetheless, any increase in production of California oil would conflict with the state’s long-term climate goals.
These conflicts indicate the ongoing challenges in California’s energy transition. The issues around oil drilling, including fracking, offshore oil development, and the regulation of auto emissions are part of stories that have played out for decades. To understand the challenge of reducing and eliminating oil production and use requires an understanding of each of these stories and an investigation into the impact of oil on California’s history.