California’s Dirty Secrets

People often say that California is a leader in the climate movement—but we still have a lot of work to do to earn our climate cred. While it’s true that the Golden State has made a lot of progress on demand-side solutions (think: electric cars, municipal composting, solar panels), the rest of the world needs to know that California has some dirty secrets. We’re still pumping oil & gas out of the ground at a terrifying rate; and we’re still investing our public pensions in the companies that are engaged in this reckless behavior. Both of these things are already losing us a lot of money — and they are poised to cause catastrophic losses.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m proud of my home state. I’ve lived in California for most of my life, and I can attest to the huge strides we’ve made in cleaning up our air and water. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made decarbonizing our transportation, and now our buildings too. I’m proud of our sanctuary cities, and a host of progressive reforms that leave us all safer and stronger. But driving my electric car through the oilfields of Fresno, Bakersfield, Santa Barbara, and LA, I see another California in stark relief: we are a petro-state. With oil derricks extending to the horizon, Bakersfield’s Kern County is in fact the #1 oil producing county in America. For Los Angelenos (especially lower-income Angelenos), the oil derricks are literally in their backyards. For anyone who spends time in southern California, Dirty Secret #1 is really an open secret.

As Executive Director of Fossil Free California, my day job is attending to a less open secret: the fact that America’s two biggest public pension funds, both in California, invest billions of our teachers’ and public employees’ retirement dollars in the fossil fuel industry. CalPERS (the Public Employee Retirement System) and CalSTRS (the State Teachers’ Retirement System) have over $15B invested in companies holding carbon reserves. If you count the pipelines, refineries, and additional services that make burning those carbon reserves possible, the number shoots up to over $22B. 

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