In November 2017, U.S. mayors, governors, and companies gathered at “We Are Still In,” a pavilion at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, to announce their commitment to the Paris Agreement and to reducing carbon emissions.”But [these city leaders] need to be reminded when they get home that they told the world that they’re leaders and they need to do more – so that means there’s a role for individuals to put pressure on these actors to do more,” Senior Vice President on Climate Change and Energy at World Wildlife Fund, Lou Leonard told progrss last November.
That is what a group of activists was trying to do on November 11, when America’s Pledge launch took place at Bonn. As California Governor Jerry Brown stepped on stage, activists stood at the back holding banners denouncing Brown’s lenience with fracking companies saying “still in for what?” before being escorted out. “That is really good noise, but it doesn’t get the job done,” Brown responded to the protestors.
The ongoing tension between Brown and activists has its roots in California’s fracking policies and its status as the most polluted state in the U.S.. In fact, according to the Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute, in the last three decades, 25 fossil fuel companies have produced half of industrial emissions globally. Wells used for fracking, the process of injecting fluid into shale beds at high pressure in order to free up petroleum resources such as oil or natural gas, leak 40 to 60 percent more methane than conventional natural gas wells..
According to the American Lung Association, between 2013 and 2015, eight of the 10 cities with the highest year-round concentration of particulate matter in the United States were in California. The Golden State is also home to seven of the 10 American cities with the worst ozone pollution. Environmentalists argue that this is a result of the state government – currently represented in Brown – being soft on corporate polluters.
Sam Cass studied Environmental Science at UC Berkeley and worked as the external relations coordinator at a coalition called Students Against Fracking at UC Berkeley. She thinks that California’s regulations on fracking are not strict enough to protect the health and safety of California residents. “In the past, there have been issues with [the] disposal of wastewater from the fracking process,” she tells progrss. “Often wastewater was left in impoundment ponds to evaporate, but this method releases volatized chemicals into the air that contribute to air pollution. Another disposal method was simply [re-injecting] fracking wastewater back into wells. These disposal techniques endanger the health of people in California.”
One notable health case caused by fracking was in November 2014, when three billion gallons (almost 11 billion liters) of fracking wastewater were pumped into protected drinking water aquifers in the Central Valley. Cass now works at a Thai environmental reserve established by the UNESCO, Sakaerat Biosphere Reserve, running a facility for ecological and environmental research.
Looking at events in her home country from overseas, she explains that she has not seen policies that address the air and water pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing and other extreme fossil fuel extraction methods in California. “It is…more worrying that the federal government has now vowed to remove even more regulations from fracking,” she adds. She praises, however, the State of California for suing the Trump administration for its repeal of a rule regulating fracking on public lands on January 24, 2018.
Last month, New York City announced a lawsuit against five of its “most powerful” fossil fuel companies over air pollution. City leaders gathered to unveil their decision before the public to deprive city funds from fossil fuel reserve owners within five years, which would make New York City the first U.S. city to do so. “At the same time, we’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits,” said New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. “As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”
New York City’s climate action resonated more than 2,000 miles (4,000 kilometers) west and encouraged Los Angeles to follow the lead. Just three days following the public announcement, two Los Angeles City Council members, Mike Bonin and Paul Koretz, introduced a motion asking the City Attorney to look into legal options against fossil fuel companies. “When I saw the news about what de Blasio was doing, it made me say, ‘Why the hell aren’t we doing this here?’” Bonin said. “We like to think that the winds blow from the West to the East, but occasionally, the winds come back.”
Cass believes that cities need to take responsibility for protecting their citizens and telling fossil fuel companies that they will be held accountable for their actions and must pay for the mitigation methods to protect people from climate disasters. However, Cass doesn’t believe that a lawsuit is the best idea. “The federal government is not making any moves to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for [its] role in causing climate change,” she reasons. “Due to our current political situation, it does not seem like there will be any effective carbon policies being created any time soon. We do not have time left to wait around for the next three to seven years for the political situation to change.”
Cass and other environmentalists are not sure how much concrete change these lawsuits will achieve. She suggests instead that cities in California make policies that help phase out fossil fuels, move toward 100 percent renewable energy, and begin large-scale carbon sequestration.
Corporate influence on the U.S.’s political system is believed to be preventing California, among other states, from moving forward with climate action, which has been clearly demonstrated by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in June 2017. “For the most part, the people in California want strong climate change prevention and mitigation policies in place,” she says. “However, in places like the Bay Area we are not able to do this since there are five oil refineries in the area and each time there is a city council or air quality council meeting to discuss emissions caps and climate change, tons of fossil fuel industry representatives are paid to show up. I can only imagine what happens behind closed doors.”
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