Why Newsom and Bonta were the ones to take on Big Oil


With help from Ry Rivard

HOW SOON IS NOW — California’s leaders have long contemplated suing oil companies for climate change damages, but it took the dynamic duo of Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta to finally make it happen over the weekend.

We’re still wondering: Why now, when a parade of legal luminaries from Jerry Brown to Kamala Harris to Xavier Becerra have passed on the opportunity?

Legal and political experts say it’s a confluence of factors.

Newsom and Bonta pointed to a changing legal landscape, including a Supreme Court decision in April to let these cases stay in more-sympathetic state courts and a buildup of evidence showing oil companies held back evidence of a link between fossil fuels and climate change.

Bonta also cited “synergy” with Newsom’s office and “ongoing developments in extreme weather that we’re seeing occurring right before our very eyes.”

But politics is paramount. And the wildfire-driven winds are blowing in favor of taking on Big Oil.

“I just think it’s a question of a changing, no pun intended, political climate, and Gov. Newsom and Rob Bonta being in a position where they can pursue something that most observers would argue is a tough shot,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic political consultant and attorney who’s worked on climate policy.

For Newsom, who’s been burnishing his progressive credentials on the national stage, it’s a natural move. “He clearly wants to be a national player and so in taking this step, you just become even more visible on an important issue in lots of places outside of California,” Sragow said.

It’s even more understandable for Bonta, who has a lower statewide profile and has said he’s considering a gubernatorial run.

“I think that he is staking out that he’s going to be bold,” said R.L. Miller, founder of the Climate Hawks Vote PAC and a Democratic National Committee delegate.

Bonta signed a pledge back when he was in the Legislature that he wouldn’t accept campaign donations from oil companies — but so have Lieutenant Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and former state Controller Betty Yee, both Democrats who have already entered the 2026 race to replace Newsom.

“He’s going for broke,” Miller predicted.

The corollary of that question is why all of the giants who preceded Newsom and Bonta left such a political plum for them to grab. Some, like Becerra, were busy playing defense against former President Donald Trump, Sragow said.

“Some of it could be simply internal capacity and politics, and that we can’t really know,” said Ken Alex, a former senior assistant attorney general under Brown who led the office’s environmental section and later served as Brown’s director of the Office of Planning and Research. “There’s a whole bunch of considerations that go into figuring out if it’s worth the time and effort.”

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WIENER WORRIED — Newsom and the California Chamber of Commerce both used the words “clean up” over the past two days to refer to changes they wanted to make to SB 253, Sen. Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) bill to require companies operating in the state to disclose their carbon emissions.

On Sunday, after proclaiming “of course I will sign that bill” onstage at a Climate Week panel in New York City, Newsom added that SB 253 and a related bill to force large corporations to disclose their climate-related financial risks may require some kind of “clean up.”

The California Chamber of Commerce said Monday that it would try to get “clean-up legislation” next year to address concerns about impacts to small businesses.

Wiener is sounding the alarm. “I’m confident that the Chamber of Commerce by ‘clean up’ means gutting the bill, which they were trying to do all year,” he said in an interview with our Ry Rivard today in New York.

He said industry groups are likely looking to remove or make optional the requirement that companies disclose scope 3 emissions — emissions that are furthest down along the supply chain but that also tend to be highest.

“That would make the bill useless,” said Wiener.

His bill doesn’t require companies to start disclosing emissions until 2026, so there’s time for tweaks. Newsom has until Oct. 14 to sign.

NEWSOM SPEAKS AGAIN — Newsom’s not done with Climate Week yet. He’s speaking tomorrow at 7 a.m. Pacific at the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit.

LITHIUM LOWDOWN — The CEO of Lithium Americas Corp., which is currently building the country’s second lithium mine at Thacker Pass on the Nevada-Oregon border, is saying he doesn’t see any other U.S. lithium projects getting permitted in the next few years. (There are three currently in development at California’s Salton Sea.)

“On the permitting side, we’re always going to come into issues. And it’s not just us — it’s geothermal, transmission lines, solar farms. They all face the same issues,” Jonathan Evans told Hannah Northey of POLITICO’s E&E News. “The biggest issue that we have in this country is we’re a litigious society, and there isn’t a statute of limitation on appeals.”

Evans cited insufficient private sector investment as another challenge. Other recent headwinds include economic volatility in the mining industry and short-staffing at permitting agencies. New technologies are also proving bumpy: One company working on lithium extraction at the Salton Sea had to return a federal grant last year after “material changes” to its original proposed project.

Last week, the Interior Department submitted recommendations to overhaul the country’s mining law by streamlining rules that miners would have to meet before filing for permits, changes that many companies are objecting to. Currently miners can stake claims at little cost, develop in secret and submit incomplete paperwork, which the Interior Department found leads to clashes with the public and lawsuits.

CALPERS CLIMATE CONUNDRUM — The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, kicked off its September board meeting Monday. A coalition of environmental groups, including Fossil Free California and the Sunrise Project, is calling on the state workers pension fund, the largest public pension fund in the nation, to divest from fossil fuels and otherwise align its investments with climate risk.

The call comes after a bill that would have required the pension funds to sell holdings in the 200 largest publicly traded fossil fuel companies was turned into a two-year bill. Meanwhile, the fund has turned over thousands of pages of documents to Congress in recent months in the face of Republican scrutiny over climate-related investment practices.

“CalPERS has a long history of measuring the risks to its portfolio that arise from climate change and we will continue that discussion with our board this fall,” said James Scullary, assistant division chief in the CalPERS Office of Public Affairs.

Climate investments didn’t come up the first day of the meeting; advocates are watching to see if they’re raised tomorrow.

— Leading credit rating firm AM Best dropped its outlook for the home insurance sector from “stable” to “negative” in large part because of stronger and more frequent extreme weather events.

— An overview of the patchwork of bills that could make a difference on affordable housing.

— California is getting over $100 million in federal funding to plant and maintain trees, with the largest amount awarded to San Francisco.


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