PCL Capital Insider – February 2024

Climate Change & California Today – PCL’s 2024 California Environmental Assembly

For over two decades, PCL has convened experts, activists, policymakers, and the environmental community to address challenges faced by California. Our most recent California Environmental Assembly was held on Saturday, January 27th, 2024. We returned to an in-person event after three years of virtual webinars. We gathered at King Hall on the UC Davis campus, hosted by the School of Law’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center. The Assembly theme – Beyond 1.5 Degrees: Hard Truths and Solutions – focused our discussions on immediate needs and actions. The multi-tiered challenges of climate change: more intense cycles of drought and flood, longer heat waves, massive wildfires, and our need to dramatically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gasses have set the stage for needed reforms and advances in law and policy.

In addition to the panel policy discussions, attendees enjoyed an insightful discussion over lunch with Laine Randolph, the Chair of the California Air Resources Board, followed by a two-hour discussion with Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot on green infrastructure and how to ensure we do it right for both the environment and our communities.

Climate Change & California Today

Three panels at this year’s California Environmental Assembly, covered below, focused intensively on both climate change adaption (wildfire and groundwater) and reducing future warming (methane reduction). While the assembly is a gathering of the environmental community – addressing human needs for safety, water, and a livable future led the conversations that are helping shape impactful and equitable policy.

Wildfire Evacuation Planning

Last year’s tragic events on the Island of Maui resulted from a “perfect storm” of both short and long-term planning deficiencies and extreme environmental conditions. Cumulative poor land use decision-making, transportation deficiencies, extreme drought conditions, unprecedented winds, and limited evacuation planning (including lack of timely notification of residents) led to 97 deaths. The panel of fire, law enforcement, planning, and weather experts discussed lessons for California and what we need to be doing right now to avoid future disasters similar to what occurred on Maui.

The scope, quality, and effectiveness of evacuation planning for projects in High Risk and Very High-Risk Fire Hazard severity zones has varied widely around the State. Inadequate plans and the lack of clear and meaningful performance criteria have often prevented lead agencies from making informed decisions on project location, design, and wildfire-related mitigation measures, including the number of ingress and egress roads needed to evacuate residents safely. Panelists and session participants agreed that public safety should be a co-equal priority with new housing, pointing out that the costs associated with compliance would depend upon sighting decisions and the proximity of the projects to existing roadways.

The 2023 panel discussions led to legislative interest, and Senator Ben Allen introduced SB 571 on Fire Safety. The effort to pass SB 571 is looking to build an expanded coalition in 2024, including firefighters, law enforcement, and utility associations to support the efforts of our environmental and public health allies. The bill is now a two-year bill and will be back for committee hearings in January 2024.

Sustainable and Equitable Methane Emission Reductions Now

It is beyond time for an aggressive, on-the-offense strategy to take back a healthy planetary climate. Science considers methane emissions a primary target in this context with probable, significant, and immediate climate benefits. Methane is responsible, planet-wide, for approximately 40% of climate change. It is one of the most damaging GHG Emissions and is 90 times more potent in warming impacts than carbon dioxide. Atmospheric concentrations of Methane are 2.5 times higher than in preindustrial times. Yet preventable significant methane emissions are released daily from the operations of industries worldwide.

The panel of experts on the dairy, landfill, and oil and gas industries and a leader in the Environmental Justice movement discussed responsible pathways to reach an 80% reduction of methane emissions statewide by 2030. In California, the primary methane-emitting industries are dairies and related agricultural operations (approximately 50%), landfills and related waste management practices (30%), and oil and gas, including gasoline refineries (20%). Technologies are available in these sectors to dramatically reduce, if not eliminate, methane emissions. In most cases, the newly captured emissions can be sold, and the resulting revenue will offset the costs of new containment infrastructure. At the same time, unintended consequences of methane containment can lead to public health impacts on neighboring disadvantaged communities.

This year’s panel sparked discussions looking to build on the 2023 introduction of SB-781 Methane emissions by Senator Henry Stern. Technology coupled with smart policy developed with involved communities can lead to a rapid and sustainable reduction in methane emissions.

The New Science and Reality of Groundwater

Climate Change has brought new weather patterns, increasing the likelihood of both droughts and floods and increasing the variability of our water supply. In 2014, the California legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.  This was shortly followed by university research that revealed that the capacity for storing water under the ground far exceeds that of dams and reservoirs at a vastly reduced cost. Water utilities, environmentalists, and flood control managers have begun demonstrating the multiple benefits of floodplain restoration and groundwater recharge.

The panel explored the intersection of new law, new science, and first-hand experience from the winter of 2022-2023 in the world of groundwater. Passed last year, SB-122 Public Resources Trailer Bill (FY 2023-2024) redefined aquafers as natural infrastructure, and this encourages big-picture thinking by allowing funding for projects that integrate flood control, greenhouse gas reduction, habitat restoration, and groundwater recharge. This panel presented a deep dive for decision-makers and participants into the imaging capabilities developed by Stanford University to help growers replenish groundwater supplies. Stanford research and information will be essential to making planning decisions about where and how to build any large-scale new development. Last winter’s rains and the efforts of one irrigation district working with property owners and cities resulted in some fantastic results for groundwater sustainability.

Many Thanks, and no doubt…More Policy Developments to Come

While PCL convenes the Assembly, it is the attendees, panelists, and moderators who lead the way in advancing a livable, inclusive, and prosperous California, and we owe them all our thanks for an incredibly successful 2024 California Environmental Assembly. Stay tuned to future editions of PCL’s Capitol Insider for more details on the climate change efforts growing out of the Assembly and developments from our other sessions!