Way Past Time to Wean Ourselves Off Big Oil, Experts Warn

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The world needs kick its addiction to oil and other fossil fuels to stave off global warming and it’s not as impossible as the industry has made it seem, an international panel of civic leaders said at a climate change conference in San Francisco on Thursday.

While coal has hit its peak as an energy source, oil is far from that according to scientist Peter Erickson with the Stockholm Environmental Institute.

“In California, oil consumption has been at 600 million barrels a year for the last three decades, about 15 barrels per person. That is six tons of CO2 per person,” Erickson said. “We are nearing a climate emergency. If we’re going to avoid much worse fires, much worse hurricanes, more food and water shortages, we are going to need to do two things: essentially go to net zero carbon emissions by the end of the century and we need to leave most fossil fuels underground and undeveloped.”

Some governments have already started. New Zealand’s climate change ambassador Jo Tyndall said her country has already transitioned to 80 percent renewable energy, with a goal to achieve 100 percent by 2035. This past March, the New Zealand government also announced it will no longer grant new permits for oil and gas exploration.

“We’re not out immediately but a clear signal has been sent to industry that New Zealand is phasing out oil and gas. They need to consider alternatives in the commercial decisions they make,” Tyndall said, noting the move will be gradual over the next 20 to 30 years to protect the livelihoods of people who work in the oil extracting industry.

Tyndall likened the clean energy transition to the Industrial Revolution. “It is a massive structural adjustment; a slow and managed adjustment. But starting early is better for society than a short shock.”

She spoke as part of a forum on limiting oil production as climate change policy, an event affiliated with the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

She was joined by California state Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who said her district has deeply felt the effects of the United States’ dependence on oil.

“We have seen personally the impacts of oil and gas production,” Jackson said. In 1969, the Santa Barbara Channel was hit with the largest oil spill in history. While it now ranks third behind the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon spills, Santa Barbara still suffers from spills: 23 in 2014, 20 in 2015 and 8 as of June 2018.

“People seem to forget as we keep going back to the old way of doing things and continue to drill and drill,” she said.

But Jackson’s district is fighting back.

“Santa Barbara has really been a home to this battle and while California may be leading the resistance to the Trump administration in many respects, Santa Barbara has been leading the resistance to offshore oil drilling,” Jackson said.

When President Donald Trump moved to reopen federal coastal waters to offshore drilling this year, Jackson introduced a bill to block construction of oil infrastructure such as pipelines in state waters. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill in advance of his environmental summit.

“For the oil companies, this is about the money. Clearly they don’t care about the environment or the local areas and we’ve created obstacles for them so that the money doesn’t pencil out,” Jackson said.

Summit protesters have argued Brown needs to do more to regulate drilling in California. At a march that blocked streets outside the summit, angry demonstrators called for Brown to ban fracking and move more quickly away from fossil fuel production.

California is still a major player in the oil and gas industry, and onshore drilling operations are concentrated at the southern end of the Central Valley. Brown has said drilling should be phased out slowly, signing off on roughly 20,000 onshore drilling permits as governor.

Jackson said even her county has become dependent on big oil money, which funds local schools.

“We often underestimate the power of the oil industry,” she said. “They’ve been running this country for a long time.”

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