« Return to this article

Know the West

Why are environmentalists mad at Jerry Brown?

The California governor has made bold moves on climate — but greens are disgruntled.


Gov. Jerry Brown displays a chart showing temperature increases due to climate change at an agricultural economics conference in 2014.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

Updated Feb. 3, 2015

On Jan. 5, when Edmund “Jerry” Brown, 76, was sworn in for his fourth term as governor of California, he delivered a treatise on the environment for the ages. He quoted biologist E.O. Wilson. He geeked out on microgrids. He leveled warnings about the climate and announced a plan of action. Within 15 years, Brown said, 50 percent of California’s energy should come from renewables; vehicles should use half as much gas. The energy efficiency of existing buildings should double.

The goals are California’s, but Brown clearly expects the world to follow his state’s lead. If we stand any chance of saving the planet, he said, California “must show the way.”

No governor has ever pledged what Brown has, nor have many spoken so fiercely on climate. So why didn’t Brown’s speech make environmentalists swoon? Beyond a few kind words from Tom Steyer, the billionaire Keystone XL fighter, most guardians- of public health and the planet came away no less pissed off than they were before. Outside the Capitol building during Brown’s speech, activists dressed as oil executives played mock tug-of-war with “the people of California,” yanking a suited man in a papier-mâché Jerry Brown head around like a puppet. It wasn’t clear who won.

Brown hasn’t talked about oil much lately, but early in his third term he made clear what he thought of people who put environmental concerns ahead of California’s then-sagging economy. In 2011, he fired two regulators for subjecting drillers to rigorous scrutiny; two years later, he announced that he wouldn’t be “jumping on any ideological bandwagons” to ban advanced well-stimulation techniques like hydrofracturing and acidizing, which entails dissolving rock with hydrofluoric acid. High-tech extraction techniques are critical to exploiting the Monterey shale, the 1,750 square-mile jumble of oil-packed rock that Brown called California’s “fabulous economic opportunity.” But most environmentalists just want drilling on the shale to stop.

“He could sign an executive order at any moment placing a moratorium on fracking,” says Kathryn Phillips, the director of the Sierra Club’s lobbying arm in Sacramento. “And in light of the information that we have out now, logic would suggest he do so.”

That information includes the 2-degree- Celsius global temperature increase some scientists consider the climate’s breaking point. Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s climate law center, notes that the governor mentioned that number in his speech, but didn’t seem to understand its implications. “We cannot observe that limit if we develop the Monterey shale,” Siegel says. “We just can’t.”

The good news for environmentalists is that Monterey won’t be the nation’s next Bakken: As the Energy Information Administration reported last May, there’s far less recoverable oil there than the 15 billion barrels industry analysts once ballyhooed. Brown signed a law in September of 2013 requiring drillers to disclose their methods, and also calling for studies of their environmental impact. With New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo throwing down an implicit gauntlet with his own state’s fracking ban, Brown might just consider some restraints on oil production when those impact reports come out this summer.-

Then will the rift mend? Unfortunately, it will not. Environmentalist dissatisfaction with Brown extends beyond the Monterey, and some objections come from former allies. As the state’s governor from 1975 to 1983, Brown signed into law protections for California’s coastal waters, pioneered tax credits for rooftop solar and set energy-efficiency standards so strict they obviated the need for a new nuclear power plant — a technology the governor and his then-girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt, rabidly opposed. 

But that Jerry Brown is gone now, says Huey Johnson, who served as Brown’s resource secretary from 1976 to 1982. He’s been replaced by a distracted man with a worried eye on his legacy. “In his first two terms, (Brown would) give speeches on the importance of limits, on the limits of resources, the limits of consumption,” says Johnson, now president of the Resource Renewal Institute in Mill Valley, California. “He used to talk about preserving land for wildlife or recreation.”

These days, Johnson says, “He’s gotten hung up on this twin tunnel stuff. And for that, he deserves to be tarred and feathered.”

The tunnels Johnson refers to would divert water from the Sacramento River to thirsty farms and cities down south, ostensibly to reduce pumping from the ecologically hammered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. They’ve become so synonymous with the state’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, and so many environmentalists hate them, that in activist circles “BDCP,” says Phillips, stands for “Big Dumb Concrete Pipes.”

Phillips acknowledges that Brown is “weak on natural resource issues,” but disputes Johnson’s view that the septuagenarian statesman differs so radically from the 36-year-old idealist who eschewed the governor’s mansion for a downtown apartment because he wanted to walk to work. Like his father, Pat, who ran the state for two terms starting in 1959, “Brown has always been devoted to the idea that technology can solve all our problems,” she says. “The Browns like to ‘get shit done.’ ”

That’s not all bad, Phillips argues; it’s the very quality that “helped us transition so quickly to cleaner (electricity production) in this state.” It’s just that engineering marvels like dams, canals and high-speed rail often conflict with protecting habitat and open space.

Brown could, of course, leave an impressive- legacy on climate alone, if he’d only hold consistently to that goal. On Feb. 7, a coalition of environmental groups will hold a climate march in Oakland, Brown’s hometown, where he served as mayor for eight years, and participants apparently believe Brown is vulnerable to the pressure such a demonstration can bring.

“The standard slogan you see at these rallies,” Phillips says, “is ‘Climate Heroes Don’t Frack.’ I think the governor knows that. I think he understands that extreme extraction techniques to pull up oil will counteract all his other climate goals. I have hope that he’ll make the right decision.”

This story was originally titled "The limits of legacy" in the print edition.