For the past half-decade, Governor Jerry Brown has positioned himself as a world leader in the fight against climate change. And his efforts have mostly paid off — as evidenced by the fawning media coverage Brown received earlier this year when he met with Pope Francis to discuss the dangers of global warming. But a recent series of investigative stories by the Associated Press have confirmed what many environmentalists have been arguing for years — that Brown's reputation as a climate hawk is largely a work of fiction, a triumph of style over substance.
The most recent AP bombshell by reporter Ellen Knickmeyer, published last week, revealed that Brown ordered state regulators last year to conduct a special study on the potential for oil drilling and mining on his family ranch near the Sacramento Valley town of Williams. You read that right: Governor Climate Leader wanted to know whether it was possible to drill for fossil fuels on his own land, so he ordered state regulators, working on the public's dime, to conduct a special 51-page analysis for him.
Knickmeyer followed up with the revelation, published earlier this week, that a state mapping specialist, Jennie Catalano of the California Department of Conservation, has filed a whistleblower complaint, contending that she has faced retaliation because she objected to being ordered to perform the oil drilling analysis for the governor. Knickmeyer also quoted a former top state regulator who said Brown was livid when he found out that a subordinate, Steve Bohlen, put the governor's order for the oil drilling study in an email — because the email could be uncovered later via a Public Records Act request.
Michael Stettner, former longtime manager for the state's oil and gas division, told the AP that current and former state regulators said Brown was "extremely upset with Bohlen using the email to communicate with him. I'm putting it nicely compared to the graphic way it was described to me."
Brown administration officials have tried to downplay the AP's findings by claiming that state regulators routinely hand out the same type of information the governor requested to private citizens when they ask, and that Brown didn't violate state laws that prohibit public officials from using public resources for their own benefit. But the AP talked to four oil industry professionals and three former longtime state oil and gas regulators who all said they could not recall the state ever conducting a detailed mapping analysis and assessment — like the governor ordered — for a private individual. Stettner called the Brown administration's claims "pure BS."
And that's not all. Last month, the AP also reported that Brown fired top oil and gas regulators in 2011 after they had warned him that his order to override key environmental safeguards — so as to expedite fracking in the state — would violate state and federal laws. Brown later bragged that his decision to terminate the regulators in the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and replace them with industry-friendly ones led to the speedier approval of oil drilling permits. Earlier this year, the state acknowledged that the oil drilling operations approved after the firings had resulted in the contamination of underground water supplies for drinking and irrigation.
These revelations have come to light thanks to a federal lawsuit filed by Central Valley farmers who contend that Brown sought to expand oil drilling in California in exchange for huge campaign contributions from oil companies for his 2012 tax measure. The farmers and environmentalist allege that these pay-to-play deals have resulted in polluted water supplies.
Brown's spokespeople have repeatedly claimed that the allegations are "baseless," and they've pointed to the governor's public stances on climate change as proof that he's had no quid-quo-pro arrangements with the fossil fuel industry.
But many environmentalists have argued otherwise for years. In fact, some dubbed the governor "Big Oil Brown" after he blocked legislation in 2013 that would have temporarily banned fracking in the state. That move also came after he received millions in campaign donations from the oil industry — not only for his 2012 tax measure, but also for his campaigns for governor and state attorney general, and for his two Oakland charter schools (see "Fracking Jerry Brown," 10/2/13).
Brown also came under fire from enviros this summer because he stood on the sidelines as the oil industry spent millions on lobbying and attack ads in an effort to kill his plan to reduce gas consumption in the state by 50 percent by 2030. The governor didn't publicly fight back until just before the end of the legislative session — after it was clear that Big Oil had already won (see "California's Missing Climate Hawk," 9/2).
Brown then followed up by handing Big Oil another victory: He appointed a former oil industry executive in October to a top regulatory post in DOGGR, as reported by environmental journalist Dan Bacher on the Express' website. Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity noted that the appointment was just more of the same for Big Oil Brown. "[His] administration has shown a blatant disregard for the law, and time after time it has sacrificed California's water and public health in favor of oil industry profits."