By Kerry Jackson, Pacific Research Institute
Outside of the California Air Resources Board’s new emissions testing and research center in Riverside stands an island of four “fossilized” gas pumps. It’s a sculpture intended to represent the death of oil and gas. It’s more illustrative, though, of the state’s hardheaded energy policy agenda.
The sculptors were paid $450,000 to fashion the Petrified Petrol Station out of limestone. As a piece of art, it isn’t bad. There’s also a vague Stonehenge quality about the carving. It could work as a prop in an end-of-civilization movie, in which mystified characters struggling to survive a post-oil crash stumble upon some strange artifact from a past in which hydrocarbon energy was cheap and plentiful.
(By the way, are the faux pumps showing the exorbitantly high fuel prices California drivers are paying? Authenticity is important.)
As a political statement, though, the piece is sorely lacking, as was cutting a gas pump hose rather than a ribbon to dedicate the new building. Not everyone sees the point officials think they’re making. Energy author and journalist Robert Bryce says the artwork is “indicative of the fossilized thinking of California regulators,” who are stuck on the idea that the internal combustion engine is going away, even though the governor-dictated transition to electric vehicles isn’t supported by the “physics, history and the math.”
Let’s stipulate right now: No one wants dirty air. Let’s also stipulate that the air quality in 2021 is far improved over that of a half century ago. Levels of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, and lead – real pollutants – fell 78 percent from 1970 to 2020, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
California’s air is also cleaner. And when adjusted for population, no state has seen greater improvement since 1980.
Yet activists, politicians, and the media continue to stubbornly, and as publicly as possible, campaign against fossil fuels. Having won the war on truly nasty environmental and health hazards, they’ve turned their aim on carbon dioxide, a naturally occurring gas that makes our world green. They need another fire-snorting dragon to slay, another crusade to show they mean business.
Their virtue signaling might seem to be an empty gesture, a tired and silly act worthy of ridicule. But it carries inherent dangers.
Think about the wildfires that run through California every year. Officials in this state and others blame the changing climate and receive the approval they crave for doing so. But the messaging is hardly as effective as a commitment to forest management.
“There’s no doubt that a ‘climate damn emergency,’ makes for a catchy headline,” says the Mackinac Center’s Jason Hayes, referring to the memorable comment Gov. Gavin Newsom made last year while looking over the damage from the North Complex Fire in Butte County.
“But, if we’re going to implement effective wildfire control policies, we should dig a bit deeper to determine the fires’ real causes.”
While Jerry Brown was still in office, he also blamed climate change rather than, in the words of Chapman University professor Joel Kotkin, “looking in a mirror.” Had he done so, he would have recognized someone who had surrendered to the green lobby, which “has pushed policies creating vast areas with dense underbrush and stunted tree growth, just perfect to incubate catastrophic wildfires.”
Virtue signaling about climate and energy is also a distraction that allows policymakers to avoid real work. There are far more important issues to address than the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are only about 1% of global emissions.
There’s the steep cost of housing. And the country’s highest poverty as well as a growing crime problem and homelessness crisis. Businesses are leaving. People are leaving. The gap between the rich and poor with a shrinking middle class in between is unsustainable. Outrageous energy prices are wallet drainers. Businesses are crushed under the weight of taxes and regulation. Drought and deadly wildfires are the norm rather than the uncommon.
Resolutions to these many challenges are difficult to come by politically. Because the above problems are caused by blue state policies that are assumed in left-leaning circles to be conveyances for progress, they’re as ossified as a 225-million-year-old tree. Comparatively, legislation and executive orders thought to be favorable to the climate are not only easy to turn into law, they are notches in carbon fighters’ pistols.
Images such as legislators celebrating passage of their latest climate bill, and a line of petrified pumps might be striking. But that’s all there is. There’s nothing of substance behind the facade.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.