Beth Harvey had just finished grocery shopping when someone asked her to sign a petition outside a Trader Joe’s in an affluent Oakland neighborhood. The petition would keep oil companies from drilling near homes, schools and other sensitive sites, the canvasser told her.
“I was relying on what he said,” Harvey recalled. “I was putting my groceries in the trunk, and so I just very hurriedly said, ‘Oh, yes, I’ll go for that.’ And I signed it.”
Harvey, an outpatient case manager at a children’s mental health clinic, thinks others who signed the petition in this progressive Oakland community probably thought it would prevent neighborhood oil drilling too. “Rockridge isn’t really known for its pro-oil stance,” she deadpanned.
That may be why the signature gatherer told Harvey that the petition would protect people from oil drilling when in fact it aimed to do the opposite: overturn a recently enacted law boosting health and safety regulations on neighborhood oil and gas drilling.
The landmark law, Senate Bill 1137, banned new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of places people live, work and play. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law, which also tightens oversight of existing operations, on Sept. 16, a Friday. By the following Monday, an oil industry representative had filed a referendum to overturn SB 1137, which is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1.
Sponsors of the referendum have until Dec. 15 to collect nearly 625,000 signatures to get the measure on the 2024 ballot. But they won’t have to wait for Californians to vote. Simply qualifying for the ballot freezes enforcement of the law creating buffer zones, buying oil companies almost two full years to expand or continue drilling in those areas.
Galvanized by that prospect, 16 oil companies have spent more than $17.9 million since mid-October to support the referendum, according to the nonpartisan Fair Political Practices Commission.
Just three companies with neighborhood drilling operations in the state—E&B Natural Resources, Crimson Resource Management and Signal Hill Petroleum—have spent more than $9.6 million, state campaign finance records show.
Last April, an E&B employee left a pipeline valve open in the Inglewood Oil Field, releasing 1,680 gallons of oil barely 350 feet from the visitor center of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, a park near the predominantly Black community of Baldwin Vista in the Los Angeles area. In June, air regulators found the super-pollutant methane leaking from two E&B wells near the city of Bakersfield. And in August, a leaky Signal Hill oil storage tank near Long Beach released plumes of noxious gases in violation of air safety standards.
None of the companies responded to questions about why they are backing a measure to overturn the creation of buffer zones around neighborhood drilling operations.
Around 27 percent of California’s roughly 104,000 wells operate within the new buffer zones mandated by SB 1137, Kyle Ferrar, a public health scientist with the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, reported in April. More than 4,800 of those wells are run by the oil companies bankrolling the referendum, he found.
Almost 70 percent of the more than 2.5 million Californians living within the roughly half-mile buffer zone are people of color.
Living near oil and gas drilling increases the risk of numerous serious health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and chronic cases of fatigue, nosebleeds and headaches, studies show. Babies born to women living in the vicinity of drilling operations are more likely to have birth defects and lifelong health problems linked to entering the world too early or underweight, research indicates.
So when voters like Beth Harvey hear they can help protect communities from harm by signing a petition, they gladly comply.
Canvassers outside another Oakland grocery store last month gave attorney Michael Goldstein the same pitch Harvey heard: sign this petition to put a measure on the ballot to ban new oil and gas wells near schools, hospitals and homes.
Goldstein liked the idea and asked to read the petition. “I saw that it said the opposite and pointed it out to the guy,” said Goldstein, who retired from private practice last year after a stint with the Office of the State Public Defender. “But he said he was sure the measure would do what he said it would.”
Raj Thairani ran into signature gatherers lying about what the petition aimed to do three different times last month. When Thairani, an Oakland-based attorney, told one canvasser the referendum appeared to challenge an anti-drilling law, the person said he was mistaken. Thairani decided to research the issue on his phone, and quickly found information confirming that the petition sought to overturn drilling protections.
He confronted the canvasser and showed him an article explaining that the oil and gas industry is trying to repeal the new law. At first the person got defensive, Thairani said, then he said it wasn’t going to pass anyway. “They knew exactly what they were doing,” he said. If the oil industry gets the referendum on the ballot, he added, “it delays implementation of the law for a couple more years, which for them is a lot of money.”
Thairani filed a complaint with state election officials after each of the three incidents.
“It’s unscrupulous what they’re doing, and it’s misleading,” Thairani said, “If you’re going to work inside the system, then you need to at least follow the rules and bring it to the voters, honestly, and let them know what they’re deciding.”
The same thing happened with signature collectors outside two different San Francisco East Bay grocery stores a few days before Halloween. They told shoppers that the petition aimed to create new safeguards, then argued with someone who challenged what they were saying. Both insisted they were just repeating what they had been told to say.
Reports of petition circulators’ misleading voters about what the referendum would do have been surfacing across the state, said Kobi Naseck, coordinator for VISIÓN (Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods), a coalition of public health and environmental justice groups working to protect communities from backyard drilling.
“The behavior that we’re seeing from these signature gatherers undermines our democracy,” Naseck said. “Big Oil is paying people to lie to the general public. They’re effectively buying the policy they want.”
Petitioners have also been telling voters that the measure would lower gas prices, Naseck said. “Why would Big Oil spend millions on something that hurts their bottom line to help you?”
Operating in the Shadows
The push to overturn the setback law is sponsored by a committee called Stop the Energy Shutdown, a coalition of small business owners, concerned taxpayers, local energy producers and the California Independent Petroleum Association, or CIPA, an oil industry lobbying group. The referendum’s top funders all belong to CIPA.
CIPA has spent close to $1 million since 2021 to lobby nine regulatory agencies, including the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, which oversees oil and gas drilling. SB 1137 is among scores of bills that the lobbying group has sought to influence, hoping to defeat it as it did two previous buffer-zone bills by arguing that the health-protective measures would cost billions, kill thousands of jobs and lead to the bulldozing of the Amazon to get more oil.
Rock Zierman, CIPA’s chief executive officer and a contact on the committee’s campaign finance filings, did not respond to a request for comment on its effort to overturn SB 1137.
Ballot-measure sponsors contract with companies that hire temporary workers to collect signatures. The nonpartisan election tracker Ballotpedia estimates that it cost an average of $16 per signature to get a measure on the California ballot this year. Companies are not required to disclose how much they pay canvassers.
It’s illegal to intentionally mislead voters about the contents or intent of a petition. But the small group of petition-circulation companies that work in California operate largely in the shadows.
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One signature-gathering firm, PCI Consultants in Los Angeles County, circulates most of the ballot measures in California, experts say. A person who answered the phone at PCI, identifying himself as a scheduler, confirmed that the firm was handling the SB 1137 referendum. He agreed that signature gatherers should not misrepresent the petition and said someone who handles ballot measures would call back. No one did. The California Secretary of State’s office oversees election law but does not regulate petition-circulation companies or the independent contractors they hire to collect signatures, said a spokesperson, Joe Kocurek. Petition companies are not required to register with the Secretary of State or disclose what ballot measures they are working on, he added, although the office has the authority to investigate allegations of misrepresentation and fraud.
With just over two weeks to meet the deadline to qualify for the 2024 ballot, the referendum proponents have not yet gathered 25 percent of the 623,212 signatures needed, state records show. Community organizers encourage anyone who sees signature gatherers misleading voters to file a complaint with the Secretary of State. The agency cites intentionally misrepresenting the contents or effect of a petition to a prospective signer as a common elections code violation.
Ilonka Zlatar, an environmental scientist and president of the grassroots climate-action nonprofit 350 Sacramento, filed a complaint after seeing signs posted on an unattended table outside a grocery store urging voters to protect children from oil and gas wells near homes. Zlatar assumed that a signature gatherer for the effort to repeal SB 1137 had set it up and was on a break.
A complaint investigator with the Secretary of State’s elections division told her that the office was seeing a “large number of complaints” associated with the setback referendum, she said.
Calls and emails to the complaint investigator went unanswered.
Nielsen Merksamer, a lobbying firm that specializes in ballot measures, is legal counsel for the oil industry’s SB 1137 referendum. The firm has often aided the tobacco industry’s efforts to repeal laws restricting the sale or marketing of its products. Most recently, the firm helped Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds get a measure on the ballot to repeal California’s 2020 ban on selling flavored tobacco products. The repeal effort failed, but it bought the tobacco industry a nearly two-year reprieve on selling its harmful products.
Nielsen Merksamer is also managing an effort to overturn AB 257, a state law that Newsom signed on Labor Day to enhance protections for fast-food workers. The Service Employees International Union filed a complaint with the Secretary of State last month alleging that signature gatherers were lying to voters to get the referendum on the 2024 ballot.
A ‘Livable Future’
California oil and gas regulators, for their part, are not letting the referendum effort interfere with putting SB 1137 into effect. On Nov. 3, officials with CalGEM held an online public workshop to present their plans to protect communities in line with the new law.
In addition to requiring a health and safety setback for new wells, said Uduak-Joe Ntuk, CalGEM’s director, SB 1137 establishes “strict engineering controls” for existing operations within each zone. The setback and required pollution control in these zones “are now the new law here in California,” Ntuk said, adding that operators must submit their inventory and maps of well sites near homes and other sensitive sites by next July.
The agency officials didn’t mention the SB 1137 referendum, but it was clearly on the minds of many of the 300 people who joined the online workshop to voice their concerns. Doctors, public health experts, scientists, community activists, lawyers, students and others urged regulators to implement the law as quickly as possible, whether or not the referendum seeking to overturn it qualifies for a 2024 vote.
“We’ve seen a threat of the referendum for a ballot measure to undo this commonsense law,” said a student from Ventura County. “We need this. I am 19 and I deserve a livable future that is not run on fossil fuels.”
FracTracker’s Ferrar has documented numerous cases of noxious emissions leaking from well sites in California neighborhoods over the years. “We’ve shown firsthand that all wells have the propensity to leak hazardous and toxic emissions into communities,” he told Inside Climate News. “And, more often than not, they do.”
He called the setback law a “vital public health intervention” to address longstanding health disparities experienced by communities with higher rates of disease caused by pollution.
“The development of responsible public health protections, including setbacks, has the support of the majority of Californians,” Ferrar said. “But the industry is using their financial resources to manipulate the democratic process with divisive messaging and outright lies.”
Naseck, the VISIÓN coordinator, sees the public workshop introducing the state’s plans for enforcing SB 1137 as a good sign. “It is promising that the agency is taking some concrete steps toward enforcing the law,” he said.
But Naseck points out that CalGEM had the power to deny permits and exercised it before the law went into effect. “In 2021, CalGEM declined a whole host of permits on the grounds of climate justice and public health,” he said.
Even so, he and others urge voters to beware of people hawking petitions they say will protect communities from oil and gas wells. “Don’t be fooled,” Naseck said. “Decline to sign.”
Voters who were misled, he added, can follow these steps to remove their signatures.
“It’s really crazy that it’s happening,” said Thairani, the attorney who filed complaints about dishonest petitioners. “I think it’s desperation. They need five percent of the voters to sign on, which is not a small amount.”
The referendum process has a romantic aura of direct democracy, where petitioners who care deeply about an issue persuade voters why they should support a particular measure. But the reality is far different.
There’s an incentive for petitioners to lie because they get paid by the signature, said Thairani. One of the petitioners he confronted had flown in from Michigan. He wouldn’t have made the journey if the money wasn’t good.