California state assembly in Sacramento

California passes ‘aggressive’ $54bn net-zero plan

Image credit: Dreamstime

State lawmakers have voted to keep open California's last nuclear plant and impose a buffer zone separating homes, schools and hospitals from new oil and gas wells.

California - the US state whose economy ranks as the fifth largest in the world - has approved a $54bn (£47bn) climate package that includes sweeping new restrictions on oil and gas drilling as well as a mandate to move away from fossil fuels by 2045.

Legislators also voted to extend the life of Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear power plant, by five years, after warning the state could face rolling blackouts if the facility's twin reactors were retired too soon. At the moment, the plant is still the state's largest source of power, providing roughly 9 per cent of its energy. 

The legislation, known as Senate Bill 1137, is part of California governor Gavin Newsom's ambitious climate pledge, which has established a target for the state to be powered 90 per cent with clean electricity from 2035. Under the new legislation, the state will have to cut greenhouse gases by at least 85 per cent by 2045, while offsetting any remaining emissions by planting more trees or using emerging technologies like direct air capture. 

“We’re taking all of these major actions now in the most aggressive push on climate this state has ever seen,” Newsom said when he introduced his plan last August. “Because later is too late.”

To reach the ambitious targets, lawmakers approved a plan that would see authorities spend $6.1bn (£5.2bn) on boosting EV infrastructure, including new battery-powered school buses, $14.8bn (£12.8bn) for transit, rail and port projects, $8bn (£7bn) on measures to stabilise the electric grid and $2.8bn (£2.4bn) on water programmes to deal with droughts. 

The bill also imposes a state-wide buffer zone to separate homes, schools, hospitals and other populated areas from new oil and gas wells. It prevents the California Geologic Energy Management Division from approving any new oil wells located within 3,200 feet of residential neighbourhoods, but would not ban existing wells within those areas.

Currently, California is the seventh-largest oil-producing state in the United States, and more than 2 million people live within 2,500 feet of an operational oil and gas well, according to the non-profit FracTracker Alliance. This proximity to drilling sites has been proven to significantly increase the risk of premature births, asthma, respiratory disease and cancer, yet California did not previously have regulations on how far active oil wells should be from populated areas.

“Passage of this monumental bill is a tribute to the tireless frontline communities who have fought for their lives against fossil fuel polluters for years,” Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said in a statement to broadcaster CNCB.

Although the ambitious plan to drive sustainable energies and protect vulnerable communities has been praised by environmentalists, many campaigners have criticised the decision not to close the Diablo Canyon facility in 2025, as originally scheduled. 

“Allowing Diablo to continue operating is beyond short-sighted,” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit research organization, said in an email to The Guardian. “It will only delay the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions reductions goals and continue putting Californians at risk should a disaster strike the plant.”

California already has some of the US's most stringent policies to promote renewable energy and shift away from oil, gas and coal. Last month, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced a roadmap to ban the sale of petrol-powered vehicles in the state. The ban on petrol cars is expected to apply to 35 per cent of sales by 2026, 68 per cent by 2030 and finally reach 100 per cent in 2035. 

However, these steps toward net-neutrality have been weakened by the current energy and climate crisis, which has put immense pressure on the state's electricity grid. Earlier this week, California residents were asked not to charge their electric vehicles during peak times, raising questions about the feasibility of the state's bet on the technology. 

Despite these concerns, Newsom has continued to push for the approval of ambitious climate legislation, with Senate Bill 1137 being his latest triumph.  

“Together with the legislature’s leadership, the progress we make on the climate crisis this year will be felt for generations and the impact will spread far beyond our borders,” he said in a statement.

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