California Cracks Down On Fracking Permits

11:52 minutes

Pumpjacks on Lost Hills Oil Field in California on Route 46 at sunset.
Credit: Arne Hückelheim/CC BY-SA 3.0

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This story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on new fracking permits in the state. An independent scientific board will now need to review each project before it is approved. Reporter Rebecca Leber talks about what this state initiative tells us about the national debate on fracking. Plus, a look at the new members of the bipartisan Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus and their strategy for addressing climate change.

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Segment Guests

Rebecca Leber

Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate for Vox, in Washington, DC. Previously, she was Climate and Environment Reporter for Mother Jones.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.


The climate is changing, and because we need to deal with it now, we open the next chapter of our series, Degrees of Change. Our series explores the challenges of a changing climate, and how we as a planet and a people are adapting to the crisis. Coming up, we’ll talk about some hopeful experiments with scientists on the front lines of the worldwide coral die off.

But first, we check in on the gatekeepers, the decision-makers, the controllers of the purse strings. Every year for the past 25 years, countries converge at the United Nations Climate Change, or COP, to talk about big climate change policies. The conference was scheduled to start on December 2 in Chile, but it had to be moved due to the civil unrest happening in that country.

Here to fill us in on how COP 25 will continue and what’s on the agenda is Rebecca Leber. She’s the climate and environment reporter at Mother Jones based in Washington DC. Welcome to Science Friday.

REBECCA LEBER: Thanks for having me back on.

IRA FLATOW: It’s nice to have you back. Let’s talk about COP 25 moving to Madrid. How will this sudden change of location affect the conference, do you think?

REBECCA LEBER: Well, it certainly hasn’t happened in this conference’s history, the past few decades. So it definitely throws a wrench into things that just a few weeks out, the thousands of negotiators that descend on this COP have to readjust their plans. You have the activist Greta Thunberg having to literally cross the ocean to get to this conference in time. So it is certainly happening in this larger context of uncertainty around the future of the Paris Climate Agreement. And it is a pivotal year, because every year is pivotal in figuring out how to implement this agreement.

IRA FLATOW: So give us an idea of what’s on the agenda for this conference this year.

REBECCA LEBER: Well, since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, countries have had to fill out the rulebook, fill out how they would implement their promises to cut carbon pollution, and they’re also starting to gear up towards a really pivotal moment in 2020, when countries ideally take stock of where their carbon cuts are and try to ramp up that ambition and see how they can get us closer to keeping warming to under 2 degrees Celsius. Right now, the world is nowhere near meeting those goals that world leaders have set out the past few decades. And in 2020, that will be the time that these leaders are supposed to step up, and this year is basically the prologue to that.

IRA FLATOW: And we know that President Trump is withdrawing or aims to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Do we have any attendees at this conference that maybe perhaps overlap?

REBECCA LEBER: So I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding about the US’s involvement in the Paris Agreement. We are still involved until the day after 2020 election when Trump can officially pull out of the agreement. So the US has been sending negotiators to these conferences year after year.

Whether the US is taking on an active role at these conferences is a completely different story. We see a country going from being a world leader on this issue too taking a back seat. And in some cases, you have Trump trying to spoil these kinds of agreements.

But we’re still sending career diplomats to negotiate and to work behind the scenes. And there is a level of US involvement. The problem is, when it comes to future commitments– and that’s what these agreements really rest on, is the future promises and reliance on the US’s. That’s all what’s been thrown in uncertainty.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another topic, and that is California has stopped giving out new fracking permits. What is that all about?

REBECCA LEBER: Well, Governor Gavin Newsom this week announced a moratorium on fracking permits, and also looking at this process for injecting steam into oil and gas wells. And this is a really interesting announcement, because it comes amid this national debate over the future of fracking and the future of oil and gas. His predecessor, Jerry Brown, issued over 20,000 of these permits during his administration, even as he was held up as this leader on climate.

And I know a lot of people might not think of California as a major oil and gas producing state, but it’s actually seventh in the country. And over five million Californians actually live within a mile of one of these wells. So his announcement basically takes a step back and says, we’re going to have scientists audit the process and look at how safe it is. Also see about establishing buffer zones so you don’t have schools right next to these new oil and gas wells. And I think it does represent this larger moment where we’re having this debate over the future of fossil fuel production.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think other states will be looking to see how it turns out in California? Because there’s a lot of fracking going around in other states.

REBECCA LEBER: Well, California’s certainly in a unique position that it has a very strong democratic presence, and also has positioned itself as this leader on climate, especially as the Trump administration has rolled back the US’s leadership. So as far as other states taking cues from this, this certainly goes further than most states have looked at. And when you look at the fracking strongholds in other states, like Pennsylvania, I’m not sure we’re about to see this level of action. But it is– California has demonstrated itself as a leader, and it certainly has a major– major implications for the wider industry as a big economic force.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s move on to another topic, and this is a bipartisan congressional group called the Climate Solutions Caucus, and it just got a few new members. Tell us about this caucus.

REBECCA LEBER: Well, this caucus is really interesting, because it began in the House, and now has started this mirror body in the Senate. And the idea behind it is bipartisan action on climate. And we don’t really talk about that much these days, because there isn’t much bipartisan action.

But the Senate caucus that just started up recently gained six new members in the last couple of weeks. That includes Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham on the Republican side. And the idea behind it for both chambers is that lawmakers meet, they discuss where there is common ground on moving forward on climate. So that can include economic incentives, the role agriculture can play, and generally, talking about clean energy, which is a more popular talking point for both Republicans and Democrats.

What’s unclear here is whether that agreement and the minority of the Republican caucus meeting on this really can move forward to legislation. And that’s been the biggest test here. The caucus in either chamber hasn’t quite proven it can be effective in leading to action. But this movement certainly shows a counter narrative to the Trump administration, that you have some Republicans starting to look at this more seriously.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think any of this has to do with upcoming elections, with some of the Republicans going to be up for re-election next year, and as climate change or climate crisis becomes more popular, not only with Democrats, but with the regular population, they want to be able to say, look, I supported the need to look in to climate change.

REBECCA LEBER: That’s probably one of the biggest criticisms of this approach, that it’s more a cover for the Republican lawmakers while they don’t actually have to do very much here. And the House saw this. They lost a lot of members this past year because the more moderate Republicans lost their re-election battles. And certainly, it can be a win-win if you’re in an election year to show that you are defying the party by talking more reasonably about this issue instead of having your head in the sand.

IRA FLATOW: So you might be able to just talk about it, say, we talked about it, but never really pass any legislation that’s going to go anywhere.

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah, that’s definitely been a big criticism of it. And I think the jury’s still out on what happens here.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another topic. There was a bill introduced this week in Congress that would be a climate quote, “stress test.” Know how the banks are always having stress tests. What criteria will the banks need to meet to pass this test?

REBECCA LEBER: Well, yeah, so the banks have looked at this before, but for climate change, it’s a really interesting and complicated scenario where you can have different futures, anything ranging from a more, I guess, reasonable level of warming, to runaway, out-of-control, hothouse Earth. And this bill that was backed by nine Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren, looks at forcing banks, basically, through the Federal Reserve to take stock of these scenarios and see how they would– how the banks assets would survive major disaster, flooding, wildfire, how that affects the financial system. This is not a new idea. This has been gaining ground in the financial sector. We’ve seen a lot of reports show how climate change takes points off the GDP.

And the UK and other ones have also looked at this for their central banks, of how you conduct these stress tests. So the US here is a little bit behind the times, and this bill is forcing a conversation here. And it’s definitely one that by proactively looking at this rather than waiting for a financial crisis because of climate-induced disasters, that’s what Democrats are aiming to avoid here.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve always felt that when banks or insurance companies or whatever get into the– get into the act, when they become active about crises, whether it’s shipping over the North Pole or it’s ocean rise, you follow that money, you know that things are being taken seriously about the climate crisis.

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah. The financial system and investors, they’ve long been talking about this, seriously have been looking at how this affects the bottom line. Even oil companies look at this, how climate change affects their assets. So this conversation is definitely happening, and I think with ideas like this, the ideas push this forward, make this a more systematic approach, so you don’t accidentally introduce another financial crisis like we’ve seen.

IRA FLATOW: I get it. Thank you, Rebecca, for taking time to be with us today.

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Rebecca Leber is the climate and environment reporter at the Mother Jones based in Washington.

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