When Gov. Jerry Brown spoke to a crowd of beaming environmentalists and renewable energy advocates at the launch of a solar farm last year, he turned heads by praising another form of fuel: oil.

It was a surprising pivot from the man credited with helping to usher in the modern environmental movement as California's governor nearly four decades ago.

Back then, Brown enacted the nation's first energy-efficiency standards, signed strict anti-smog laws and blocked offshore drilling. But in his return engagement as California's chief executive, he has eased key regulations for oil companies, capped wildfire liability for timber companies and relaxed the state's landmark environmental law.