California must keep creating the future

Energy transition, image by Olivier Le Moal

OPINION – Governor Newsom says in California, “the future happens here first.”

The governor is right. The Golden State has a history of leading by example. In the past few years alone, measures like vehicle emissions standards and the push for college athletes to make money off of their own likeness have spread across the country.

In the coming years, we will learn whether California’s government, led by Newsom, will seize the moment to demonstrate the first fully funded, equitable transition off fossil fuels like oil and gas. If we do it right, workers will be the designers and implementers, and will have access to good-paying, union jobs for the long-haul. The world will have their blueprint to follow. If we act too late, we will yet again repeat the boom and bust cycle that leaves workers hung out to dry.

The transition away from oil and gas has already begun, with onshore, statewide oil production down 42% since 2014. Renewable energy now makes up 37% of the state’s electricity, twice as much as a decade ago. And sales of electric vehicles reached nearly 20% of all new cars sold last year. It’s not if we move away from fossil fuels anymore – it’s when and how.

The biggest uncertainty right now is whether workers – both those in the industry and those interdependent to local economies built around oil and gas – will have access to secure futures in the post-oil era. That’s what California leaders have the power to determine.

Most importantly, we can’t leave the planning up to Big Oil, who has shown they will fleece the everyday person, bail out shareholders and line the pockets of executives first, and leave their polluting mess behindA recent report following the experience of fossil fuel workers in Contra Costa County after the Marathon oil refinery shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a stark warning of how quickly and abruptly the industry can cast workers aside at the first sign of a downturn in their potential profits.

We don’t have the luxury of inaction…If we act too late, we will yet again repeat the boom and bust cycle that leaves workers hung out to dry.

That same situation also revealed that elected officials are unprepared. In 2022, California created a $40 million dollar “Displaced Oil and Gas Worker Fund.” Yet to date, workers are still waiting on the state to spend any of that money. While the fund is the right idea, our leaders must be more bold to address the coming changes to one of the world’s largest economies.

Luckily, workers have already told us what they need. It’s time to listen and get serious by:

Continuing to invest in economic development to create millions of new union jobs building the new sustainable economy.

Starting a worker and community “safety net” fund as we begin the managed decline of fossil fuel production.

Redirecting current fossil fuel subsidies to start the fund.

Exploring funding mechanisms to ensure the “polluter pays” – both to clean up their toxic legacy and to protect workers and communities.

Governor Newsom recognizes the climate crisis we are in, even declaring a 2045 end date for oil in the state. But to ensure we have a livable future, he must go further by phasing out and ending new drilling permits at the pace that science and justice demand. And he must put in place measures to ensure California can be the first to demonstrate that a managed phaseout of fossil fuels can coexist alongside rapid creation of high-paying jobs – allowing us all to live, breathe, and work safely.

And if money is the issue, we can find the money. When disaster strikes – whether it be a hurricane or a global pandemic – we act boldly and with urgency. Big Oil polluters have consistently made record profits while they wrecked our communities and our planet. It’s time they start paying and fossil fuel workers and communities should be at the front of the line to benefit, not wealthy shareholders.

We don’t have the luxury of inaction. We have to stay ahead of the pain that’s coming. Job loss, crumbling communities, and families left out in the cold are not futures we should tolerate. The moment for half measures is over – there are too many people at risk.

We need a plan that prioritizes workers’ needs, their ideas, and the future that they envision for themselves. From gas station attendants, to oil workers at refineries, to roughnecks on drilling rigs, everyone deserves a chance to thrive, not just survive.

Our workforce deserves a bright future beyond climate devastation. It’s time for California to exemplify it.

Tefere Gebre is the chief program officer at Greenpeace USA and the former executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.

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