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California’s 'Dirty Oil' Said as Environmentally Damaging as Canada Oilsands

Despite its reputation for leading the nation with environmental regulation, the state of California and Gov. Jerry Brown are being targeted by groups that claim officials are cozying up with the fossil fuel industry and paying only lip service to environmental justice issues.

A report issued last week by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) said the bulk of California’s heavy crude oil is as climate-damaging as Western Canada’s oilsands, with eight of the 10 largest state oilfields producing heavy crude. CBD also called for a state ban on oilfield expansions and unconventional drilling.

The state is producing "some of the planet's dirtiest crude," said author Shaye Wolf, CBD’s climate science director.

Industry representatives countered CBD’s claims by stressing the economic necessity of continuing to rely on oil and natural gas even as California increases its reliance on renewable energy resources and energy efficiency options.

Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd said the real story is how the “keep-it-in-the-ground” anti-fossil fuel agenda "would destroy our state's economy and way of life. They cannot accept, as most Californians do, that oil and gas will remain a vital part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future, and renewable energy alone cannot meet the demands of a sustainable energy future."

The head of the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) challenged the CBD report too, noting that California producers adhere to some of the most stringent regulations in the nation, "if not the planet." CIPA CEO Rock Zierman said "every barrel that isn't produced here under these strict environmental protections means more oil imported from other countries who do not follow these same regulations."

Zierman said the numbers in the CBD report do not match what the California Air Resources Board (CARB) now knows about actual emissions from in-state production and doesn't take into account that importing more oil by ships, trucks and rail presents environmental impacts.

"It is not a surprise that an activist group with a mission to end all oil production would repackage misleading information to support its false narrative," Zierman said. "The study is based on an old and outdated academic model” which he said was developed before California producers began to report their greenhouse gas emissions. It also was based on information “before the state enacted the cap-and-trade program, the low-carbon fuel standard, the methane emissions rule, the 50% renewable standard, and a host of other initiatives."

CBD’s report said about 75% of California’s oil production is exceptionally dirty as are two-thirds of the remaining reserves in 18 of the largest fields, which represent 6.1 billion bbl. Adding to the problem is a "laissez-faire" approach to oil drilling "that stifles real climate progress,” Wolf said.

"California must develop a plan for a just transition to 100% clean energy that truly protects the climate and our vulnerable communities. Necessary changes include a halt to new drilling and oilfield expansion,” as well as banning unconventional production, establishing buffer zones that prohibit neighborhood drilling and ending state subsidies to the energy industry.

CBD’s report is not the only one issued recently that targets California oil and gas production. Last month, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) took aim at California's oil and gas fields, claiming public health problems for people living in urban-area drill sites. The Food & Water Watch on Monday released another report about how the state's cap-and-trade emission trading program is hurting low-income and minority neighborhoods that are home to urban wellsites.

The Food & Watch report criticized the cap-and-trade program, concluding that market-based programs "further concentrate polluting emissions in low-income areas," and also fail to reduce emissions overall.

EDF's Irene Burga, a fellow in the oil and gas program, cited a series of separate reports that she said proves oil and gas emissions “from across the entire supply chain can wreak havoc on our health." Emissions from the fields are often higher than anyone suspected, Burga wrote on a EDF blog in early October, citing a CARB report that analyzed data from 39 different production facilities across the state.

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