Here’s where California still needs to rake its forests

With help from Alex Nieves

IF A TREE FALLS… — Gov. Gavin Newsom has touted the billions of dollars he’s poured into wildfire prevention over the past three years as a sign he’s serious about reducing damage and emissions from catastrophic wildfires. The problem is that the state (and its partners) are still far from achieving their goals.

A new dashboard released today by the Newsom administration shows that just over 545,000 acres saw some kind of wildfire preparedness work in 2022, mostly mechanically cutting down brush and trees but also controlled fire and grazing.

That’s far from the target — at least one million acres a year by 2025 — that California and the federal government jointly set in 2020.

Here come the caveats: It’s the first time data from the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire, private timber companies, tribes, local governments and nonprofits have been aggregated, and the numbers will be revised as more information and public feedback comes in. And you can parse the results in a few different ways: For example, if you count the number of projects, the footprint goes up to around 750,000 acres, because some areas saw multiple projects.

This type of parsing got Newsom in trouble in 2021, when a series of CapRadio articles showed how the administration used the most politically convenient metrics to boast about its wildfire preparedness efforts.

The dashboard is meant to track progress in a transparent way but also give firefighters and planners more information to do their work, said Patrick Wright, the director of the administration’s Wildfire Task Force.

Other takeaways from the dashboard include: Private timber companies account for nearly half of the entire footprint of wildfire prevention efforts in the state, according to their self-reported numbers on both timber harvest and fuel reduction. While Cal Fire has already met its part of the goal after steadily ramping up its use of prescribed fire, the U.S. Forest Service must still roughly quadruple its efforts by 2025 to reach its target.

“The only way we’re going to reach our target and reach it sustainably is to ramp up to do much bigger projects,” said Wright. “You’re starting to see that in most areas of the state, but it’s challenging.”

Staci Heaton, a policy advocate for the Rural County Representatives of California, called for an evaluation of why the state was still so far from its goal.

“This is people’s lives, it’s people’s homes, it’s people’s communities, and it’s people’s ability to live in California and to get insurance for their homes,” she said. “It’s got such far-reaching implications.”

She called for better benefits for federal forest workers, including housing and more incentives for businesses that cart out and use dead wood from forests. She also recommended speeding fuel reduction projects through environmental review, a proposal Republicans have introduced in the Legislature only to see stall several times.

Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here!

LATE-SESSION PLAYS — With the end of a legislative session comes the inevitable last-minute legislative plays. We’re hearing about some language on hydrogen and carbon capture and storage being floated as the deadline for gut-and-amends approaches. Here’s what we’ve seen so far:


— There’s draft bill language that would allow gas companies to invest in carbon capture and storage infrastructure and pass along the costs to ratepayers. It would also let them do the same with projects to connect biomethane facilities to pipelines.

The language has been shopped to various legislators, according to a legislative aide POLITICO agreed not to name because the talks are ongoing.

— We’ve also heard rumblings of another CCS push. Legislative staffers and enviros are talking about language that would lead to an earlier lifting of the carbon pipeline moratorium established last year under SB 905. Currently, pipelines are banned in the state until the federal Department of Transportation updates its safety guidelines.

On Hydrogen:

— Another piece of draft language that has been making the rounds would expedite the build-out of hydrogen projects, allowing them to apply for a more streamlined “permit to construct” process through the Public Utilities Commission.

— A separate Word document being circulated includes an “Article 4”, opening up the state’s support of hydrogen to include “renewable” hydrogen. That document is being promoted by the Green Hydrogen Coalition, according to GHC lobbyist Alfredo Arredondo.

Why it’s significant: The state is still working on its definition of “green hydrogen.” Assemblymember Steve Bennett (D-Ojai) has been leading talks around what energy sources should qualify; there’s a disagreement between industry and environmental groups about whether “renewable” hydrogen, sourced from the burning of biomass and biogas, should be considered.

RAKING IT IN — California state lawmakers, local governments and private companies are salivating over the prospect of securing billions in climate funding available through last year’s federal Inflation Reduction Act. Whether the state can keep track of all the irons in the fire and prevent funding from falling through the cracks is an open question.

Lawmakers made it clear the issue is front of mind during a committee hearing Tuesday, peppering state officials with questions about how they plan to ensure none of the $180 billion in potential funding available for infrastructure projects over the next decade is wasted.

Gayle Miller, chief deputy director at the California Department of Finance, said the state is preparing to unveil a new dashboard in the next couple of weeks that will track progress across hundreds of state and local agencies.

“Right now it’s more serendipitous,” Miller said in response to a question from Sen. Henry Stern (D-Sherman Oaks) on what more lawmakers can do. “I think what we can do, once these dashboards come out, is talk about how to be a little bit more coordinated and deliberate.”

Federal funding through the IRA and other Biden administration initiatives, like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, could supercharge California’s push to become carbon neutral by 2045 and reduce emissions to 48 percent of 1990 levels by 2030. The state is currently not on track to hit those targets, a January report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found. — Alex Nieves

The Chinese government could be funding the $2.8 billion Pacheco Pass reservoir project in Santa Clara County.

Sacramento won’t enforce a ban on natural gas hookups in new construction projects, at least for now.

— PG&E will likely shut off power tomorrow in parts of Northern California — its first fire risk shutoffs of the season.

Check Also

Extreme El Niño Can "Switch Off" South America’s Forest Carbon Sink

Extreme El Niño Can “Switch Off” South America’s Forest Carbon Sink

Tropical forests can help to mellow the impact of climate change by acting as a …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *