California’s Unsustainable Energy Policies


Solar panelsGlowing tributes to Gov. Jerry Brown’s environmental legacy obscure how long California has been proclaiming itself the leader in fighting “climate change.” The crusade began with Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promoted and signed the “Global Warming Solutions Act” in 2006, setting initial targets for greenhouse-gas reduction and empowering the California Air Resources Board to enforce compliance with laws and regulations aimed at achieving these goals. Other significant legislation followed. Senate Bill 107, also passed in 2006, mandated a “renewable portfolio standard,” wherein at least 20 percent of California’s electricity would come from renewable sources by 2010. In 2008, the landmark Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act directed cities and counties to increase the housing density of their communities.

When Brown took over as governor in 2011, major environmental legislation accelerated. A 2011 law raised the renewable-portfolio standard to 33 percent by 2020; another, passed in 2015, pushed the standard to 50 percent by 2030. In 2016, California set a greenhouse-gas emission-reduction target of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and extended its “cap-and-trade” program to 2030. This is just a partial list. High-speed rail, water rationing, “urban-containment” policies, a virtual prohibition on conventional energy development, retrofit mandates for trucks and dwellings, and much more have come down from Sacramento in an attempt to “address climate change.”

Will any of it work? Is California setting an example that the world can follow?

The short answer: no. Renewables alone cannot power the global economy. The latest data on global energy consumption by source show how dependent the world remains on fossil fuels. In 2015, oil supplied 33 percent of all energy consumed globally, with coal accounting for 29 percent and natural gas 24 percent—adding up to 86 percent of all energy consumed. Hydro-electric power added another 7 percent and nuclear power 4 percent. Renewables—primarily wind and solar power—contributed the remaining 3 percent. Even tripling renewable capacity would scarcely affect the primacy of fossil fuel to the world’s economy. Moreover, renewables are not “greener” than conventional energy, particularly if conventional energy is produced using the cleanest technologies available. If all the governments on earth enforced on their people the experiment that California is committed to, the result would be the collapse of civilization.

Back in the 1990s, before environmentalism had become so politically divisive, the Worldwatch Institute published one of the most reputable environmentalist journals, in which the organization consistently advocated for methane (natural gas) as the “transitional fuel” to power the global economy until breakthrough technologies such as fusion power or satellite solar power stations became commercially viable. More recently, environmental activists such as Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore have championed nuclear power as an essential component of our energy future. No place on earth is more capable of developing clean fossil fuel and nuclear power than California. A 2012 report for the Congressional Research Service estimated that California offshore areas contain 10.13 billion barrels of oil and 11.73 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Onshore, the state boasts the Monterey shale, which may contain upward of another 15 billion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Recommissioning and expanding California’s San Onofre nuclear power station and retaining the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility could easily provide five gigawatts of baseload electricity—enough to keep millions of electric vehicles on the road.

Similarly, no place is more capable than California of developing abundant water resources—though the state’s wrongheaded policies have helped create chronic water shortages. California still boasts the most elaborate system of inter-basin water transfers in the world. Upgrading water storage by, for example, raising the height of the Shasta Dam could allow Californians to collect additional millions of acre feet of storm runoff each year. And if California embraced state-of-the-art desalination technology, additional millions of acre-feet could supply arid Southern California cities along the coast, where most Californians reside.

In short, California has a choice to make: it can impoverish its population by creating an artificial scarcity of land, energy, and water, enforcing draconian restrictions on development in the name of fighting climate change. Or it can face reality and become a pioneer in a new age of clean-energy development. If the Golden State chooses the second course, it will create a viable example for the world to follow.

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. This article originally appeared in City Journal.

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Steve Sack, The Minneapolis Star Tribune