California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra has gained a reputation for environmental lawsuits, filing more than 14 against the Trump administration since being appointed to the role in 2016. But, as the battle for who will be the state’s next attorney general heats up, some say he hasn’t gone far enough to hold polluters accountable.
In 2016, when then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) was elected to represent the state in the U.S. Senate, Governor Jerry Brown (D) tapped Rep. Xavier Becerra to fill the roll. Becerra came to the position with both experience, having served as state deputy attorney general, and well-established ties to both state and national Democratic politics, acting as both head of the state’s House Democratic Caucus and a prominent surrogate for presidential nominee Hillary Clinton throughout her campaign.
In the last year, Becerra has filed a seemingly endless stream of lawsuits against the Trump administration, challenging the administration’s rollback of everything from federal regulations on fracking to a panoply of environmental laws regarding the border wall. The actions have earned him plenty of media attention, from a profile in Grist dubbing him “the planet’s lawyer” to a piece in the Atlantic that painted Becerra as the ultimate antidote to the Trump administration’s policies.
But months out from California’s primary — during which voters will select the two candidates that will vie for the role of Attorney General in the state’s 2018 general election — Becerra is eliciting criticism from perhaps an unexpected source: Climate and environmental activists who argue he hasn’t gone far enough to protect the state’s citizens from the consequences of climate change.
Of particular issue is the question of ExxonMobil’s internal knowledge of climate science, which was revealed in a series of articles published in 2015 by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times. According to internal company documents, scientists at Exxon knew about the climate risks of burning fossil fuels as early as the 1970s, and yet maintained an official position of climate denial and misinformation for years to come.
Following the release of those articles, attorneys general in both New York and Massachusetts opened investigations into Exxon, looking to answer whether or not Exxon had violated financial disclosure laws by failing to properly warn investors about the risks of climate change.
Yet, for all of Becerra’s lawsuits against the Trump administration, he has consistently ducked public questions about whether he would join New York and Massachusetts in their investigations into Exxon’s climate deception.
“It’s pretty troubling that in one of the most progressive states in our country, the current attorney general has been silent on what could be the worst case of fraud in history,” Lindsay Meiman, U.S. communications coordinator for 350.org, told ThinkProgress. “Publicly launching an investigation into all that Exxon knew is what Attorney General Becerra needs to do to prove he is a real climate leader.”
Becerra has faced months of activist pressure to join the investigation into ExxonMobil, culminating in a letter sent last month by 34 organizations urging the attorney general to open a case into the fossil fuel company.
Last May, the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote that “Becerra needs to get moving on an Exxon Mobil probe.” But Becerra has dodged the issue publicly, telling a group of reporters at the National Association of Attorneys General earlier this week that his office is “fully aware of the Exxon matter” but declining to elaborate further. A spokesperson for Becerra told ThinkProgress that it was the office’s policy not to confirm or deny any investigations. Becerra has confirmed investigations in the past, however, announcing in June that his office would be joining an investigation into the opioid epidemic.
“The climate community in California sees that Becerra is a follower,” RL Miller, chair of California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus and president of Climate Hawks Vote Political Action, told ThinkProgress. She added that while Becerra has been quick to challenge actions by the Trump administration, he has been more hesitant to initiate investigations. “The Exxon issue is especially perturbing because that is our highest priority. We have made major efforts to communicate that to him, and he has ignored us.”
One person who hasn’t ignored calls for California to investigate Exxon, however, is Dave Jones, Becerra’s main Democratic challenger for the 2018 election, who currently serves as California’s Insurance Commissioner. Jones has publicly stated that, if elected, he would join New York and Massachusetts in investigating Exxon, telling Climate Liability News in September 2017 that he would have “acted much earlier, given the information that’s been made available for years now.”
Jones has also worked to make Becerra’s non-answer on an Exxon investigation a campaign issue, sending out mailers to California delegates before the Democratic party’s state convention held between February 23 and 25 in San Diego — and obtained by ThinkProgress — that questioned Becerra’s refusal to take action on Exxon.
“Don’t we deserve an Attorney General who will represent our values?” the mailer asked.
The mailers also highlighted Jones’ commitment not to accept any political donations from oil companies, as part of a pledge championed by Climate Hawks Vote. According to Miller, Jones was the first candidate to sign the pledge after its unveiling at a Democratic party convention in May 2017. Becerra, for his part, continues to accept donations from oil companies, and has received thousands of dollars towards his re-election campaign from major oil companies like Phillips 66, a spin-off of ConocoPhillips, and one of the backers of the Dakota Access Pipeline project.
That divide illustrates an essential aspect of California politics that hides beneath the surface of the state’s outwardly progressive presentation. For all its talk about climate action and environmental priorities, it is still the country’s third-largest producer of petroleum, behind Texas and North Dakota. It is home to 17 operating petroleum refineries with a combined capacity of nearly 2 million barrels per day.
That physical fossil fuel presence translates into political power: According to the Center for Public Integrity, the oil industry spent $122 million over the past six years on campaign contributions and lobbying to boost their clout in a state that, to the rest of the country, seems eager to move beyond fossil fuels.
“Why the attorney general hasn’t [opened an investigation into Exxon], I would point out to you, really comes down to how California is much more like Texas than it is like Massachusetts or New York,” Gary Hughes, senior California advocacy campaigner with Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress. “The fundamental aspect of that is the physical presence of the largest refinery sector west of Texas.”
During his time as attorney general, Becerra has resolved cases involving a number of oil companies, including a $102 million settlement with BP for allegedly overcharging the state for natural gas. He also brought a case against Valero’s plans purchase the last independent petroleum distribution terminal in Northern California, arguing that the move would allow large suppliers to essentially control the market, potentially driving up gas prices. In response to the lawsuit, Valero abandoned plans for the purchase.
Still, climate activists worry that Becerra’s financial ties to oil companies could present problems in the future. Phillips 66, for instance, has announced plans to massively expand oil tanker traffic into one of its refineries in the San Francisco Bay, a move vehemently opposed by local climate groups for its potential impact on both local environment and global carbon emissions.
“If California is a climate leader, how is it that we are looking to see refiners more than double the number of oil tankers coming in to feed their refinery?” questioned Hughes, adding, “our concern is that Becerra has already maxed out on donations from Phillips 66.”
In the days before the California Democratic party convention, Becerra announced that his office would be setting up a unit specifically dedicated environmental justice. The bureau, which will consist of a supervising deputy attorney general and three deputy attorneys general, will investigate and enforce environmental law specifically in communities that bear an disproportionate amount of the burden of environmental and industrial pollution.
The announcement was met with praise from environmental groups, but viewed skeptically by those familiar with the tenor of the attorney general race. Miller, for her part, noted that the announcement came close on the heels of Jones’ mailer painting Becerra as weak on climate. Perhaps more damming to Miller, Becerra’s announcement didn’t include the phrase “climate change” at all.
“I did strongly feel that the timing of this was related to this campaign,” Miller said. “Becerra has been running an extremely aloof strategy, running on his record, and when he was under attack from Dave Jones, his response was to create another piece of a record that was not directly responsive.”
Ultimately, neither Becerra nor Jones managed to secure the 60 percent of delegate votes necessary to secure the party’s official endorsement: Jones received 56 percent, while Becerra received 42 percent. That means that both candidates will go into the election’s primary without the official endorsement of the California Democratic party.
But as the election heads towards November — and as the Trump administration continues to push for a rampant deregulatory agenda at the federal level — it’s unlikely that climate activists will give up the push to make California’s race for top law enforcement officer a race to the left.
“Over the last year, we have seen our legal systems, especially at the state level, be a line of defense against dangerous regression at the federal level,” 350.org’s Meiman said. “Elected officials at all levels of government are accountable, and there is no room for neutrality. You can pick a side — it’s either stand with the Trump administration and fossil fuel billionaires, or stand with the people you are meant to represent.”