California Releases Misleading Greenhouse Emissions Report

California has released its annual greenhouse gas inventory, with the numbers praised by Governor Gavin Newsom. But emissions are up in nearly every category, with critics calling presentation of the data misleading

Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.

In the Golden State, all is golden on the issue of climate change, or at least that’s what we’re being told. In essence, that was the conclusion of California Governor Gavin Newsom in reaction to the state’s release of its annual greenhouse gas emissions data on August 12th. On that day, the California Air Resources Board released its 2017 data, showing emissions driving statewide down in the electricity sector and yet emissions up in nearly every other category, including the inventory. Some categories, such as oil imports, are noticeably missing from the analysis. That, despite the fact that the state has 15 refineries in over 100 import terminals. Others such as natural gas consumption, do not include an entire life cycle analysis to account for things such as methane emissions, which happen throughout the supply chain.

Newsom didn’t mention any of this in his rosy press release. Instead, he said, “California is proving that smart climate policies are good for our economy and good for the planet. California will continue advancing the cause of American climate leadership.” California does often get top billing in the United States as a leader on climate, as eluded to by Governor Newsom. But the state’s own data, when interpreted independently of political office holders or state agencies, raises serious questions as to whether California is simply leading a race off the climate cliff.

Joining us to answer some of those questions are two experts with long tenures doing climate advocacy work in the state. One of them is Gary Hughes, the California Policy Monitor for the organization Biofuelwatch and a co-host of the show “Terra Verde” on KPFA-FM. The other is Greg Karras, a Senior Scientist for Communities for a Better Environment. Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us on The Real News today.

GARY HUGHES: Thank you so much for having us. It’s really an honor to be here with you.

GREG KARRAS: Yeah, good to be here.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, gentlemen—And this question is for both of you. Perhaps Gary can answer first. Is California showing American climate leadership as Governor Newsom said in his official statement? And we’ll drill down in the specifics momentarily, but first, what is your high-level view about that claim?

GARY HUGHES: I think it’s really worrisome that the governor can make such broad statements about California’s ongoing leadership without being more detailed about the threats and risks that we’re facing, with the real fact that emissions in many sectors, in many crucial sectors, are not coming down. They’re even going upwards, so I think the governor is doing us a disservice by not being more forthcoming with the challenges that the state faces.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And Greg, what’s your view about that high-level question?

GREG KARRAS: Yeah. Well, like most of the world, what it’s going to take here is decarbonizing electricity and electrifying transportation. On the decarbonizing electricity side, the state has used most all the tools in the toolbox— direct control, incentives— and so far is making progress. It’s early days and the tough stuff’s ahead, but it’s making progress on the electricity side. On the oil side, which is more than half of the total emissions, the state’s doing the exact opposite, taking a sort of cheap pollution trading approach, letting the footprint of the oil industry expand. Around refineries here, that’s an environmental injustice. Globally, that’s increasing the carbon footprint of oil, the biggest polluter in California.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, Gary, you’ve previously spoke with Real News reporter Steve Horn, and talked about the process for which this data is collected and then reported to the state legislature through its joint legislative committee on climate change policies. For that article, you refer to the joint committee as a, “Watch dog with no bite that’s willfully blind.” Why do you have that view?

GARY HUGHES: The fact that we’re discussing the contradiction that there is in the governor’s message about California’s success in reducing carbon pollution, and then the real world emissions increases that Greg is identifying for monitoring the refinery sector. And unfortunately, this data was released a month later than it has traditionally been released. And this committee that we refer to held its only hearing for the entire year that was supposed to address the emissions inventory, but they looked at the old data from more than a year ago. And so, yes, it’s a watch dog without bite because this watch dog isn’t even wanting to be forthcoming with the latest emissions data to really have this tough and important discussion that California has to have about how it is that we’re actually going to deal with the challenges of reducing emissions in all sectors that present climate threats.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, Greg, you’ve closely researched crude oil import data into California’s prolific refinery row. According to the California Energy Commission, import receipts continue to rise on an annual basis, and the state appears to rival Texas and Louisiana as a refining power house. What does the new data show or not show, and perhaps should show about the greenhouse gas emissions arising from the state’s intake and processing of crude oil?

GREG KARRAS: Well, you’re right that the state is collecting great data, but it’s not reporting all of it. It’s not reporting the data on how much oil we’re importing on top of refining all the oil that’s produced here, extracted here. Refineries here are importing two out of every three barrels they refine. And it’s not reporting the emissions from the exports. California is importing so much oil, even though it extracts so much, because California is by far the biggest refining center in all of Western North America. And that’s important, because although the refining sector here is not as big as Texas and the Gulf Coast, it’s isolated by the Rocky Mountains. This is the refining center, the export center, for western states and for countries across the Pacific rim. We have an industry that’s starting to become the gas station of the Pacific rim. It’s increasing its exports as we slowly on a decadal basis, decrease our oil use on the West Coast. And that trend, that’s a killer for the climate.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Gary, when you originally notified us about this data going online, you thought aviation emissions are one of the most note-worthy elements. At the time you wrote, “Even as their own emissions data shows that international aviation emissions have literally taken off a rising 45% between 2012 and 2017, far more than any other sector.” What is it that we can take from the emissions data with respect to aviation?

GARY HUGHES: It’s one of these major climate challenges that by not being forthcoming about the literal spike in emissions, that the state government, the Air Resources Board, and the governor are basically ignoring or putting their heads in the sand or in a worst case scenario, purposefully trying to make sure that the public isn’t fully informed of exactly the threats that we’re facing. On the other hand, of course, then the governor is more than happy to make these broad statements about how we’re succeeding on leading the country, leading the nation with our climate policies. So, there’s this disconnect really between what’s happening on the ground, what’s happening in the atmosphere, and then what the state government is willing to trumpet as their great successes.

An example of this that’s separate from aviation, the in-state aviation emissions are a part of the included inventory. There’s both national and international aviation emissions that have spiked tremendously, and California has kind of washed their hands of being responsible for this. Another sector altogether is the land sector, and California is a big timber industry state. There’s a lot of logging going on in the state and the Air Resources Board still provides no data whatsoever on what the IPCC refers as forested lands and wood products. They say this data is under development. So, there’s tremendous climate damage happening across the landscape in California from logging, but the state isn’t willing to even provide data on this matter.

So aviation and the land sector, these are examples of how the state is really not being forthcoming with the public to make sure that we know that there is tremendous challenges that we’re facing that are going to need a response that is going to really change how the economy and the state works. But right now, the climate policy that I’m seeing in the state is really more designed to control public outrage and to respect the economics of these big polluters and these big land-holding interests, than it is really designed to respond to the threat of climate change.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And finally, Greg, I’ll ask you to cap things off by answering this question. When nearing the end of California legislature’s 2019 session, and therefore also about to come to the completion of Governor Newsom’s first legislative calendar year, how would you grade his performance from a climate perspective in his first year in office? And to the extent that that performance has been deficient, what does the climate movement need to do to push him to respect and for the super majority of Democrats and legislature to respect the fact that we are confronted by a climate emergency?

GREG KARRAS: So, the first part is easy. The governor hasn’t done enough. But let’s be clear, no one person, no one governor, not Jerry Brown, not the president by herself or himself, is going to fix this problem. It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than any of us alone, so the second part is more important. I work for an environmental justice organization for low-income communities of color, sort of in the shadow of the smoke stacks, and we’re the ones that also have the tax-based dependence, the job’s dependence. We are desperately working and planning, for replacing the oil industry because like the rest of the world and like the global science is showing, we are going to have to do that. We’re going to have to get off of fossil fuels— and all of them, including oil.

So here, in what is actually a Petro-state, we have to deal with a government that’s in denial about that. And I would say that the first test is, let’s see some of our state officials, the governor included, being clear and open and honest and direct about what the problem is we have to solve. Otherwise, we’re going to be fighting an oil industry who’s still pretending that they’re a part of the solution, when in fact the only way they’re part of solution is if they’re divesting.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ve been speaking to Gary Hughes and Greg Karras about new emissions data out of the purported climate leader of the State of California. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for joining us today on The Real News.

GREG KARRAS: Thank you.

GARY HUGHES: Thank you so much for having us. It’s really great to be able to show this with your listeners.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News from Montreal, Canada.

Dimitri Lascaris

Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer that focuses on human rights and environmental law. He is the former justice critic of the Green Party of Canada and is a board member of the Real News Network. You can follow him @dimitrilascaris and find more of his work at