SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The word got out and the environmental lobby was quick to pounce: After years of silence on the issue, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration was reviving a controversial plan to burrow a tunnel beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the fragile hub of California’s water-delivery system.
Environmentalists said the tunnel would wreck the Delta, not fix it. Ailing fish populations would be driven further to extinction. The reworking of the Delta’s plumbing would leave Delta farmers with water too salty for raising grapes, tomatoes and other crops, they said.
“This proposal is not a plan that protects the environment,” said the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Doug Obegi.
Environmentalists criticizing the governor of California seems to be a recurring theme lately.
Environmentalists are unhappy with Newsom for signing a bill that could prolong the life of a fleet of aging gas-fired power plants — and for offering a massive loan to California’s notoriously unpopular utility to keep a nuclear plant open. They criticized him for endorsing a plan to allow refineries and other industrial polluters to bury some of their carbon dioxide emissions underground. They complained bitterly when he declared his opposition to a ballot initiative that would tax the rich to subsidize electric-car purchases.
And it’s not just independent environmental organizations taking aim at Newsom. Last month, one of Newsom’s top drought officials resigned in protest, saying the administration was too willing to compromise its ideals — and wouldn’t take swift, decisive action that would actually help the ecosystem and people suffering from a changing climate.
“Witnessing the agency’s ability to tackle big challenges nearly eviscerated by this Administration has been gut wrenching,” Max Gomberg, the longtime climate and conservation manager at the State Water Resources Control Board, wrote in his resignation letter posted online.
Quite a shot at a governor who considers himself — and his state — the unrivaled leader on climate change and other environmental issues.
When the U.S. Supreme Court severely weakened the federal government’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, Newsom said Califonria would take it upon itself to continue fighting climate change.
“California will remain the tentpole for this movement with record investments and aggressive policies to reduce pollution, to protect people from extreme weather, and to leave our children and grandchildren a world that’s better off than we found it,” he said in June.
But ever since taking office in 2019, he’s also occasionally taken stands that anger environmentalists, whether it’s about water, air pollution or climate.
The 2022 election season has seen new points of friction emerge between the governor and the environmental left, one of the most vocal and influential constituencies in California politics.
While Newsom is almost certain to win a second term, political analysts say he is working even harder to strike a balance between pushing California forward on environmental issues without doing something that could weaken the economy — and, in turn, harm any ambitions he might have for higher office. That juggling act becomes more awkward as a possible recession looms — and the Democratic governor raises his national profile on abortion, gun control and other hot political issues in what appears to be a flirtation with a run for the White House.
“Gavin Newsom is never going to be able to make every environmental group in California completely happy,” said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political scientist. “At the same time that we may be hurtling towards a recession, we’re also hurtling towards a climate crisis. And so Gavin Newsom can’t afford to leave the green movement completely unsatisfied, either. Both for his policy goals, and his political ambitions.”
Newsom’s press office didn’t make him available for an interview with The Sacramento Bee, but his top lieutenants insisted their boss is an ardent environmentalist.
Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, estimates Newsom and environmental groups agree with each other 95% of the time.
“Why are we so focused on the 5%?” Blumenfeld said in a recent interview. “The alignment is pretty strong. The things we disagree on, we’re trying to reach resolution.” Blumenfeld last week announced his resignation to run a nonprofit climate-change foundation. On the way out the door, Blumenfeld praised Newsom for setting “the global standard for bold climate leadership.”
Newsom administration officials pointed to such initiatives as an executive order that will eventually ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars. He’s also signed legislation appropriating $54 billion over five years on a variety of climate programs, from electric bus and truck subsidies to forest restoration.
Under Newsom, the state sued the federal government dozens of times to block environmental policies imposed by then-President Donald Trump’s administration. Newsom has directed state agencies to end the controversial oil-production technology known as fracking by January 2024 and all oil production by 2045.
In a state with 40 million people, disagreements are to be expected, said Democratic strategist Garry South.
Newsom “can’t make decisions just strictly on an ideological basis, or philosophical basis,” South said. “He’s got to factor in all kinds of different realities. Not just with environmental groups, but with all kinds of other interest groups.”
That includes people who don’t like power outages.
Power outages delay plant closures
In August 2020, as temperatures soared well past 100 degrees, rolling blackouts hit parts of California for two straight evenings, plunging hundreds of thousands of Californians into the dark for several sweltering hours.
The rolling blackouts were the first in California since 2001, when Enron and other companies were manipulating electricity supplies to jack up prices. The energy crisis helped catapult Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governor’s seat in 2003 in the recall election that cost Gray Davis his job.
It was a bitter lesson learned for Davis and those around him.
“A governor has to keep the damned lights on,” said South, who was Davis’ senior advisor.
The 2020 blackouts had multiple causes, but one factor was clear: California’s increasing reliance on renewable energy leaves the grid vulnerable during evening hours when solar power fades but air conditioners are still humming. Even so, Newsom insisted California wouldn’t retreat from its march toward an all-green grid; state law says electricity supplies must be 100% renewable by 2045.
Yet a few weeks later, the State Water Resources Control Board, whose members are gubernatorial appointees, agreed to extend the life of several highly-polluting natural gas-fired power plants on the Southern California coast.
The plants, capable of powering 3 million homes, had been scheduled to close at the end of 2020 to comply with water-pollution mandates. The water board set a new shutdown date: Dec. 31, 2023.
Newsom backed the decision, calling it “a small step back.”
Power supplies remain tight — and some Southern California leaders fear the state will allow the gas-fired power plants to keep running beyond 2023.
Newsom recently signed a bill that would let the state buy power directly from those plants if regulators agree to another stay of execution. Locals figure it’s a matter of time before the state decides to keep the plants open.
“As far as we can tell, the dates don’t matter anymore,” said Bill Brand, the mayor of Redondo Beach, which is home to three of the plants.
Brand said Newsom is backing away from renewable energy for political reasons.
“I think Gov. Newsom is more interested in carrying the swing states in the presidential election,” Brand said, “rather than phasing out power plants. A lot of environmental groups are unhappy about this.”
Members of his administration say Newsom hasn’t budged from his commitment to green energy.
“We’re focused on how to get to carbon neutrality by 2045,” Blumenfeld said. The governor just proposed tightening existing law by forcing utilities to get 90% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2035 — on the way toward meeting the all-green mandate a decade later.
Nonetheless, the state’s commitment to eliminating fossil fuels from the electricity grid is facing another test. In February, the city of Los Angeles asked the state water board for a five-year delay in closing a pair of gas-fired coastal plants that are scheduled to be shuttered in 2024.
Losing these plants “would leave a significant risk of local grid outages,” an advisory panel has told the water board. The board hasn’t scheduled a vote on the proposal.
Meanwhile, Newsom’s drive to stabilize the power grid accelerated last week when he proposed loaning PG&E Corp. as much as $1.4 billion in state funds to prolong the life of Diablo Canyon, the last nuclear plant in California. PG&E would use the money to make upgrades and perform maintenance needed to keep the plant going.
Under Newsom’s proposal, the extension of Diablo Canyon’s license wouldn’t be subject to the reviews ordinarily required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
The plant, located on the coast near San Luis Obispo, is scheduled to close in 2025 — eliminating more than 9% of the state’s electricity supply.
Some environmentalists want Diablo Canyon, a source of carbon-free energy, to remain open.
But others call the plant, which is located near earthquake fault lines, a menace — and are furious with Newsom for trying to help a utility whose equipment has sparked some of the worst wildfires in California history.
“How many millions get poured down the toilet for PG&E?” said David Weisman of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a group based in San Luis Obispo. Friends of the Earth, Environment California and the Natural Resources Defense Council called it a “dangerous and costly distraction.”
Newsom’s top aides acknowledged the controversial nature of his plan. “It’s a very difficult conversation, and it’s a last resort,” said Ana Matosantos, the governor’s cabinet secretary.
Newsom fights plan to tax millionaires
In September 2020, after a wildfire killed 15 people in rural Butte County, Newsom issued a startling executive order: Beginning in 2035, California would ban the sale of new cars that run on gas or diesel fuel. “Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse — and create more days filled with smoky air,” he said.
Since then, he’s pushed the Legislature to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on vehicle charging stations and other funds to bring electric vehicles into the mainstream.
Californians are eligible for rebates of as much as $7,000 under existing programs, and motorists are responding: Nearly 30% of all the new cars sold in California in the first half of this year were electrics, hybrids or plug-in hybrids, twice as much as in 2020.
But when an environmental group launched a ballot initiative to subsidize even more vehicle purchases by raising taxes on the wealthiest Californians, Newsom said no.
Proposition 30, which has qualified for the November ballot, would impose a 1.75% tax on incomes above $2 million a year to pay for additional incentives.
“Existing financial help for consumers has not been enough for low- and middle-income California families or many organizations to be able to purchase or lease an electric vehicle,” the initiative’s sponsors said in a statement filed with the Attorney General’s Office.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office said the tax would raise as much as $5 billion a year. Most of the money would be spent on public and private car-charging stations and additional subsidies for Californians buying electric cars. About 20% of the money would go for wildfire prevention.
Newsom said raising taxes on millionaires would further destabilize a tax system that’s already volatile because of its heavy dependence on wealthy incomes, which tend to fluctuate wildly from year to year.
He also took aim at one of the initiative’s chief sponsors, Lyft.
The ride-hailing companies are under a state mandate to electrify their fleets — 90% of their miles must be traveled in electric cars by 2030 — and Newsom said Lyft was trying to use tax dollars to meet that target. He called Proposition 30 “a special interest carve-out — a cynical scheme devised by a single corporation to funnel state income tax revenue to their company.”
California Clean Air, a coalition of environmental groups advocating for the tax, slammed Newsom with the ultimate insult for the governor of the bluest state in the nation — by aligning him with Republicans.
“The Yes on 30 campaign is disappointed that Governor Newsom would side with the California Republican Party and billionaires to oppose a measure to fight climate change and reduce wildfires.”
Newsom supports controversial carbon plans
While Newsom pumped the brakes on more tax-subsidized rebates, he had a bold message for the state’s air-pollution agency recently. It was, in effect: Stop being so timid.
In a pointed letter last month to the California Air Resources Board, the governor took issue with its implementation of a series of climate-change programs. In particular, he indicated he was worried that the state would fall short of complying with a Jerry Brown executive order that committed California to becoming completely carbon neutral — across all sectors of California life — by 2045.
The air board’s current plan doesn’t go “far enough or fast enough,” Newsom wrote. “We need to up our game.”
Newsom suggested a series of reforms that could reduce carbon emissions quickly, such as developing offshore wind-energy production facilities and promoting the construction of millions of “climate-friendly” homes and equipping them with hyper-efficient heat pumps.
Environmentalists applauded; Newsom’s laments dovetailed with their own suspicions that the air board wasn’t being aggressive enough.
But portions of Newsom’s letter rankled the green community — in particular, his embrace of a technology called “carbon capture.”
Generally speaking, the technology allows companies to separate carbon dioxide from other smokestack emissions, compress it and pipe it underground. There are seven proposed carbon capture projects in California, all in the San Joaquin Valley, seeking approval from federal officials.
While the technology has been around for several years, environmentalists don’t like it because they fear the carbon could leak and, in its compressed form, could become highly dangerous. It also allows the industrial firm to continue spewing other harmful pollutants into the air, so long as they dispose of the carbon.
Environmentalists also say the technology could be used to prolong the life of aging oil fields — the pressurized carbon could loosen up hard-to-extract oil deposits — although Newsom just sent lawmakers a legislative proposal that would “prohibit an operator from using concentrated carbon fluids for purposes of enhanced oil recovery.”
Many environmentalists also were distressed that Newsom didn’t move to strengthen California’s “cap and trade” program, a decade-old system that sets a price on carbon emissions.
The program requires industrial polluters to purchase credits allowing them to emit carbon; auctions run by the state have raised $20 billion for various climate initiatives.
But environmentalists say the program is weak and doesn’t truly discourage carbon emissions. Prices for the credits have been so low that companies have stockpiled 321 million of them, according to a panel that advises state officials. Each credit is good for emitting a ton of carbon.
Why does that matter? Because the companies, instead of reducing their carbon pollution, will be able to comply with the program by spending their backlog of unused credits, said Danny Cullenward, vice chair of the advisory committee and policy director at a San Francisco nonprofit called Carbon Plan.
Blumenfeld argued that cap and trade has been effective at reducing carbon emissions — and has done so without harming the business climate.
“California is really a beacon to the world in how we’ve done that,” he said. “We’ve grown the jobs sector.”
Newsom struggling with California water woes
Newsom has had an uneasy relationship with environmentalists over one of the toughest problems confronting any California governor: the state’s chronic water shortages.
Start with how the major rivers are governed. Environmentalists have been insisting that more water be left in the rivers to protect struggling native fish populations. These same rivers irrigate millions of acres of Central Valley farmland and provide drinking water for millions of Californian.
Newsom’s predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, had brokered tentative compromise: Farmers and cities would give up some of their water and pay for habitat restoration on the rivers. But they wouldn’t surrender as much water as environmentalists were demanding.
The state water board, under Chairwoman Felicia Marcus, voted to do what the environmentalists wanted, disregarding Brown’s peace initiative.
Shortly after his inauguration, Newsom fired Marcus, infuriating environmentalists.
Months later, Newsom angered them again, this time by vetoing a bill designed to negate every environmental decision made by the federal government after Jan. 20, 2017 — when former President Donald Trump took office. One reason for the veto: Farm groups were threatening to back out of the river compromise plan if Newsom signed the anti-Trump bill.
The compromise is still being negotiated, without support of most environmental groups. Last week, a group of influential farm-water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley signed on to Newsom’s proposal.
Newsom’s complicated relationship with environmentalists over water issues took another turn last week, when the governor unveiled a broad set of strategies for coping with expected declines in supplies in the next 20 years.
Environmentalists applauded much of the blueprint, including Newsom’s support for water recycling and stronger conservation efforts.
But Newsom also called for streamlining the red tape snarling a series of water projects that have been on the drawing boards for years. These include Sites Reservoir, the largest reservoir to be built in California since 1979.
“The time to get these damned projects (approved) is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s absurd. It’s reasonably comedic.”
Environmentalists don’t like Sites, which would draw water from the Sacramento River and, as they see it, pose a major threat to the river’s health.
“Unfortunately, this strategy doubles down on promoting water storage projects, such as Sites Reservoir, that won’t provide new water supply but will detrimentally affect California’s rivers, lakes, streams, and communities,” said Brandon Dawson, director of Sierra Club California.
Delta tunnel irks environmentalists
Then there’s the issue of fixing the Delta.
The West Coast’s largest freshwater estuary is the hub of California’s north-to-south water network. Giant pumps at the south end of the Delta, operated by the state and federal governments, take water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and ship it to the farms of the San Joaquin Valley and millions of people in Silicon Valley and Southern California.
Thanks in part to decades of pumping, fish populations have fallen to critical levels. Sometimes environmental regulations force the state and federal water projects to throttle back their pumps to protect the fish, allowing more water to reach the ocean — which reduces deliveries to farms and cities.
The result is that the Delta is becoming a bottleneck. Brown championed a plan to build two tunnels beneath the Delta to siphon off a portion of the Sacramento River’s flows during heavy storms and route it directly to the canals serving the southern half of the state. This re-engineering was designed so the pumps wouldn’t have to work as hard, fish populations would benefit — and water deliveries to the south would become more reliable.
Environmentalists hated Brown’s plan, arguing it do far more harm than good. Within days of taking office, Newsom agreed to scuttle the twin-tunnel plan but directed water planners to consider a scaled-back, single-tunnel project.
Three years later, Newsom unveiled his single-tunnel plan — and environmentalists are just as outraged as ever. Sierra Club California said “this flawed project is incredibly wasteful.”
Four Democratic congressmen from the area said it “will devastate the Delta communities and ecosystem.”
Newsom’s administration argues that the tunnel would be an essential tool for coping with climate change. California is getting hotter and drier — and its water supplies are becoming increasingly fragile. Fixing the Delta so the pumps can operate more regularly is critical. And Newsom believes he can do it without sacrificing the fish.
“We’re literally doing every single thing in our capacity to make sure the environmental consideration is lifted up,” Blumenfeld said.
If the project overcomes the opposition — no sure bet — it will take as much as 20 years to complete. So the environmental ramifications — good or bad — won’t be felt until long after Newsom leaves the governor’s office.
Kousser, the UC San Diego political scientist, said it’s no accident that the consequences of most of Newsom’s environmental policies won’t be felt for years.
Like other politically savvy governors, Kousser said, Newsom is “claiming immediate political credit on the environment, for something that their successor as governor will have to pay for.”