Brown’s Last Chance: Fossil Fuels, Public Transit & A Just Transition

California has long been characterized as a bastion of environmental protection. Its present Governor, Jerry Brown, has been lauded for continuing this tradition via progressive climate policy during his time in office. Indeed, Brown set the goal of halving California oil consumption by 2030, and between 2007 and 2013 was able to decrease fossil fuel use by fifteen per cent. These efforts among others have earned praise from international climate leadership, who are increasingly turning to California to set the tone for U.S. climate policy under an anti-environment federal executive. However, despite this alleged commitment to progressive climate policy, Brown has issued over 20,000 drilling permits over the past seven years and declined to ban fracking, further perpetuating fossil fuel infrastructure and industry expansion.

The Governor’s refusal to keep California oil in the ground lies in the state's dependency on fossil fuels, particularly in the transportation sector, which accounts for 39.5 percent of California oil consumption. Brown has argued that California's comparatively strict environmental regulation regarding fossil fuel extraction justifies its continued oil production, rather than importing oil from other states. In line with this policy of climate complacency, California ranks third in national crude oil production and runs on petroleum based transportation.

Brown must address his state’s dependency on fossil fuel-based transportation and take leadership in the transition to a post-carbon economy instead of catering to Big Oil interests. However, ending the issuance of fossil fuel extraction permits and creating a plan for energy substitution is more complicated than simply cutting ties with Big Oil. Brown must take action towards a managed decline of permits and fracking, and invest in sustainable transportation for working class families, not just the privileged few able to purchase a Tesla. Progressive climate strategy must work towards a just and equitable transition off fossil fuels, and in the case of California, provide alternatives to petroleum driven transportation for all.

As daunting as this challenge may appear, other nations have already started research, investment, and policy formulation to shift transportation from fossil fuel dependence to renewable energy. Research on transportation in the European Union has studied alternative fuel sources and concluded that the most cost-competitive option comparable to petroleum is electric power. Further work from Chinese researchers shows that solar and wind are the best options for investment. However, solar cars are neither a pragmatic nor equitable policy strategy for transportation electrification. Despite any government subsidies, gas taxes, and insurance benefits offsetting a higher car sticker price, this strategy falls hard on low-income communities, who in California spend 6.1 per cent of income on commuting compared to a 3.8 per cent national average.

In California, workers depend heavily upon affordable transportation to navigate many highways that are a part of everyday life. In cities like Los Angeles, fossil fuel-powered transportation is the order of the day, but means of transportation vary dramatically across racial and income divides. While metro and car users are typically middle class, around 88 percent of bus riders are people of color with an average income of $15,000. Possibly due to the imbalances of capital and power between socioeconomic classes, public transportation is seldom expanded with the needs of the working class in mind and is often oriented around the desires of the upper middle class.

Metro expansion for the middle class is typically prioritized rather than increasing underfunded bus lines, but metro officials often deny any funding bias. However, union advocates disagree, arguing that authorities “are massively reducing bus service” in an inequitable fashion. Additionally, despite promises to expand green transit, there is no consideration for displacement, the affordable housing crisis, or the wellbeing of low income communities. Given past patterns of development and displacement, it’s clear that gentrification is most rampant in neighborhoods with rapidly expanding public transit hubs. These low income communities are pushed further away from affordable transit, decent schools, and job opportunities, in what has been called the new urban crisis

So where do we go from here? These issues are potential roadblocks to a just transition in the transportation sector.

While many consider metro expansion the obvious solution to automobile dependency, this policy historically displaces low income populations established along metro lines. Alternatively, research points to investment in the public bus, as it is crucial in connecting working class communities while ignored by white commuters. Electrification and expansion of existing bus routes addresses both fossil fuel dependency and transportation needs for families who can’t participate in more expensive solutions to climate change, like buying a Tesla or solar panels.  

There is support for expanding and decarbonizing local bus routes, particularly in low income communities finding job revitalization directly from green technology development and in economic opportunities afforded by increased mobility. This creates opportunities for skills based jobs, opening up the potential for unions to provide job training in underserved labor markets. Unionization would also allow workers to negotiate for better benefits, from wages to healthcare. Additionally, frontline housing activists and grassroots organizations in cities like Los Angeles could could collaborate with lawmakers on strategies like bus rapid transit to ensure fast, safe bus routes specifically planned for low income neighborhoods. Pro-climate legislators like Kevin De Leon would do well to work with these organizations to create climate-oriented, socially just urban planning. Green, accessible, and affordable transportation offers a means for workers to take back power, leveraging their skills and collective power for a fossil fuel-free, labor-oriented future.

The numerous pieces of this puzzle are in place, ready to be connected to the greater climate and labor movements. Though decarbonizing and expanding bus transit is not a unilateral solution to the larger problem of fossil fuel infrastructure, it is one policy proposal that could meaningfully contribute to a larger plan for the just energy transition. The petroleum industry has posed a roadblock to progressive climate policy for long enough, and it’s time for Governor Brown to take climate action in line with science and justice, instead of continuing to issue new oil and gas extraction permits. Exxon and its capital may have Governor Brown’s ear at the moment, but the workers, marginalized and angry have the collective power to demand systemic reform in line with climate and labor justice.

Ishana Ratan is a PhD student at UC Berkeley. Her research interests focus on trade barriers and their role in the rapidly globalizing international economic landscape.