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Sparks

California Is Really Stringent About Fossil Fuels, Until It Isn’t

What’s happening in California today may happen soon everywhere else.

An oil refinery.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

California Governor Gavin Newsom told state regulators to allow refineries to start distributing so-called “winter-blend” gasoline ahead of its planned date, part of an effort to relieve spiking gas prices.

Typically, California entirely switches over to its winter-blend on November 1, but Newsom instructed California environmental regulators to “immediately take whatever steps are necessary to allow for an early transition to winter-blend gasoline to be manufactured, imported, distributed, and sold in California.”

Average gas prices in California are over $6 a gallon, according to AAA, compared to a national average of over $3.83. “California is experiencing dramatic spikes,” Newsom’s letter to the California Air Resources Board read.

California has an almost completely unique energy market and set of environmental regulations. Its oil refineries have state-specific requirements to reduce emissions from the gas they sell, along with heavy gas taxes and a statewide cap-and-trade program. The state also intends to ban sales of internal combustion cars by 2035.

Not only are gas prices in California high compared to the rest of the country, they tend to dramatically spike as well when refineries go off line.

“Allowing refiners to make an early transition to winter-blend gasoline could quickly increase fuel supply and provide critical liquidity on the spot market, and act as a much-needed safety valve,” Newsom said in his letter.

Newsom made a similar order to allow earlier sale of winter-blend gasoline last year when gas prices spiked.

This combination of uniquely stringent environmental rules and standards accompanied with a fair amount of flexibility in implementing them has become typical of California in recent years. The turning point was 2020, when California’s energy supplies were insufficient to keep the lights on in the state as temperatures rose in the summer. The following summer, Newsom issued an emergency proclamation that both expedited clean energy deployment and lifted some emissions restrictions for back-up generators. The state even built and installed four gas-fired generators to support the grid.

This past August, California regulators, with Newsom’s support, allowed a Southern California gas storage facility to increase the fuel it could store; three gas-fired power plants that were slated to close in 2020 were allowed to stay open at least through 2026 thanks to reliability concerns.

While California is something of an outlier when it comes to environmental protection, the dilemmas Newsom regularly faces will likely become more familiar across the country if there’s any hope of reducing carbon emissions. Elected officials around the world are dealing with the dual challenge of maintaining the existing fossil-fuel-based energy and economic infrastructure their constituents rely on while trying to build an electrified and non-carbon-emitting one in its place. This will require all sorts of compromises, setbacks, and contradictions in order to serve people’s present and future needs.

What’s happening in California today may happen soon everywhere else. There’s a reason Tomorrowland has been in California since 1955.

Green
Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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