Q&A: California Drilling Setback Law Suspended by Oil Industry Ballot Maneuver. The Law’s Author Won’t Back Down

A referendum pushed by the oil industry will ask voters in 2024 to reverse tough new restrictions on neighborhood oil drilling. The bill’s author, state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, hopes Gov. Newsom will step in.

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State Sen. Lena Gonzalez toured Mark Twain Elementary School before speaking at a press conference to promote support for Proposition 13, the historic school facilities bond, in Long Beach on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Credit: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images
State Sen. Lena Gonzalez toured Mark Twain Elementary School before speaking at a press conference on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Credit: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

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State Sen. Lena Gonzalez had a lot to celebrate at a press conference last fall when California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a sweeping package of bills to accelerate the state’s transition to clean energy.

As California moves toward a fossil fuel-free future, “it’s imperative that Latino, Black, Indigenous and other communities of color know that their frontline communities will no longer be subjected to environmental injustice,” Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents Long Beach and other parts of Los Angeles County, said at the signing ceremony.

She credited Newsom and his “incredible team” for helping her bill to protect frontline communities from hazardous oil drilling operations become law. 

The law, Senate Bill 1137, bans new permits for oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, clinics and other sensitive sites, and tightens restrictions on existing wells within the buffer zones.

But Gonzalez’s celebration was short-lived. Days after Newsom signed S.B. 1137 in September, the oil industry filed a referendum to reverse the protections Angelenos and community advocates across the state spent years fighting for.

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The referendum qualified for the 2024 ballot Friday afternoon, after the oil industry spent more than $20 million on the effort. During that time, some petition circulators, who are paid by the signature, told voters the measure would protect communities from oil drilling, when in fact it would do the opposite. Advocates urged voters to ask county elections offices to remove their signature, though officials said just 10 voters, including six in Los Angeles County, have done so.

The law went into effect Jan. 1 but will now be suspended at least until November 2024, when voters could decide to reinstate it by rejecting the oil industry’s referendum.

Big Oil knows California is phasing out fossil fuels and is doing everything it can to “squeeze out profits as they pollute our communities,” Newsom said in a statement on Friday. “We’re not standing for it.”

But instead of taking actions to protect neighborhood drilling protections, Newsom is pushing a price-gouging penalty. 

Environmental advocates have urged the governor and his regulators to put emergency setback rules in place and stop issuing new permits, using their statutory authority.

But the oil industry still wields considerable power in the halls of state government. Oil companies and their trade groups spent more than $70 million lobbying California politicians and regulators between 2019 and 2022, when two previous bills to restrict neighborhood oil drilling failed. 

But Gonzalez, her coauthor, Sen. Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), and likeminded colleagues keep fighting, she said, because they’re working on behalf of future generations and the millions of Californians who live near oil wells.

Drilling operations are especially dangerous for children, who are more vulnerable to toxic exposures. Active and even idle wells can emit a steady stream of hazardous air pollutants that lead to diverse health problems, including birth defects, developmental disorders, serious respiratory problems, cancer and premature death.

Gonzalez spoke with Inside Climate News about the fight to protect neighborhoods from fossil fuel extraction and the oil industry’s pushback. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk about the long road to get S.B. 1137 passed and the oil industry’s move to overturn it?

Yes, well, it definitely was a long road to get this passed. Many of our local environmental justice groups, and really across the state, have been advocating for years to ensure that there were health safety buffer zones. In 2020, CalGEM [California Geologic Energy Management Division] began their process of determining what health buffer zones would look like, including the distance and engaging the community. And then late 2021, after that couple-year process, the governor put forward an executive order on health setbacks. And at that time, there was also an independent panel that came out. It was a study of experts, physicians from all across the country that basically stated that anything like homes, schools, nurseries that were 2,500 feet and closer to gas and oil wells would be considered a detriment to someone’s health. 

And so we knew at that point, given the executive order, given the independent scientific panel and given the two bills previous to that, that there was a constant need and support for the bill. Sen. Wiener (D-San Francisco) put forward a bill in 2021 and there was a bill by Assembly Member Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) previous to that. But in each case, the bills died in committee. Then this last year is when the governor came forward and said, “You know, I want to codify this, in addition to doing a whole slew of climate bills and a package, and we need senators and authors ASAP.” So I obliged. I signed up given the circumstances of my district.

The city and county of Los Angeles passed similar measures, which would never happen in Kern County, the center of state oil production. How do the L.A. measures play into the statewide law?

In the same space and time frame from about 2020 on, even probably before that, things were really starting to get very active in the city of L.A. and the County of L.A. on this issue. The idea was to ensure that if the state was, knowing the history of the state Legislature, not moving these bills forward, that Los Angeles as a whole needed these protections. And so it was great to know that there are additional protections and that, now that the referendum qualified, the city of L.A. and County of L.A. will still be fighting hard to ensure that their residents, and really my residents, are protected.

With so many in your district affected by oil drilling, it stands to reason that you’d want to take on a statewide buffer zone law. Talk about the challenges.

So this effort came late in the game, at the 11th hour last year. We were working on our own bill packages when the governor came forward and said, “Hey, we need to get this package put forward,” one of which included what is now S.B. 1137. I had stated really clearly, I want to take this on, I would like to offer this. So we offered it in the 11th hour and it passed the Senate by 21 votes, just barely. It then moved over to the Assembly, and was having trouble. It ended up getting 43 votes, but it was hanging on 40 for a very long time, which was freaking everyone out, of course, as per usual, with these bills. That goes to show you that these bills are not easy, even with this supermajority in the Democratic Party. Not all of our Democratic friends have been on board with this issue. 

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Thankfully, it got signed, and now we’re in the middle of our referendum. The petitioners of the referendum filed the day before Gov. Newsom was speaking at New York climate week. And both Sen. Limón and I were there, being the authors of the bill. So it just was really disheartening to hear that it was actually happening.

Newsom used his bully pulpit to get the setback passed but now seems unwilling to protect the law by, for example, issuing a moratorium on drilling or emergency setback rules, as environmental advocates have urged him to do.

We keep pressing as well. And I think we should stop [permitting]. There should be a moratorium on any new permitting. We should have the ability to do that. And he should be weighing in at this point. We have asked his team, what the next steps are, should this qualify, what does the next chapter look like? And so we’re working very closely with him but getting very little information. And we really need to ensure that this hard work that we put forward doesn’t get undone just because the gas and oil industry is willing to spend well over $20 million in signature gathering. 

And the thing is, too, many of the signature gatherers were offered $20 per signature in some cases. And if they stayed around for the windfall-profits penalty discussion, which would be challenged as well, they would receive up to $40 per signature. That’s the rumor out there. That is what our partners and labor have been tracking. And so this is of concern. The time is now to start talking about strategy and what we can do to protect Californians.

You recently introduced a bill calling for pensions for public school educators and other public employees to divest from fossil fuels. What do you hope that bill accomplishes? 

Senate Bill 252, which we also tried last year, basically states we want CalPERS and CalSTRS [California Public Employees’ Retirement System and California State Teachers’ Retirement System] to ensure that they have divestment on the table. The Legislature cannot require divestment. Nor can we require or dictate any type of investments. But leading off many previous bills that basically said, you know, you need an inventory of the climate risks in the portfolio, we said we’re at this point where we’re already investing between CalPERS and CalSTRS over $11 billion—about $8 billion in PERS and about $4 billion plus in STRS. These are dollars that are going towards some of our largest gas and oil industries, Exxon, the Chevrons, the Mobils of the world. 

In my opinion, it’s very hypocritical of us, when last year we told taxpayers, hey, we’re going to be using your tax dollars towards climate action, ensuring we’re creating opportunities for wildfire prevention, drought, oil setbacks, carbon neutrality by 2045. Yet we’re still investing over 11 billion of our pension dollars, hardworking dollars, towards fossil fuel. It just doesn’t make any sense. 

And what this says is we want divestment to be on the table. And we want to ensure that we’re divesting by 2030. It gives a seven-year time horizon, and it requires more transparency as well stating that by 2025, we need to make sure that annually, PERS and STRS is providing an in-depth report of their investments and if they have not divested or are not on the track to divest. 

This is information that average beneficiaries should be getting anyway. It’s just this report of where their hard-earned dollars are going. And many of these teachers and firefighters and nurses and longshore folks that have signed on to this bill have stated that they are done. They don’t want fossil fuels to be a part of their investments. 

California’s oil industry contends that their oil is less polluting because they operate under the strictest environmental rules, even as they work to overturn them. What will it take to make sure laws stick?

Gas and oil representatives came into my office yesterday. I said, sure, I’ll have a 15-minute meeting with you. But they continue with this rhetoric of, you know, they’re overregulated, they’re just poor gas and oil industry suppliers that are producing this “clean oil” in California, it’s so hard to make a living here, and woe is me. And I’m thinking, you’re polluting our neighborhoods, contaminating the soil, contaminating the air and water. 

And you wonder why people get very upset by this. It’s because they’re literally gouging us in so many different ways and directions. Regardless [of] if the referendum passes in 2024 or not, we will continue to apply more regulations on gas and oil industries and other polluting industries.

And clearly, the referendum process is really not suited for the betterment of Californians and definitely needs a lot of reform. And I look forward to weighing in on those discussions and talking about what we can do.

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