Environmentalists gear up for battle to reject a referendum funded by Big Oil on a law passed last year that would ban oil and gas drilling within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals.

3 minute read

July 30, 2023, 11:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Fenced-in oil pump in residential neighborhood

MSPhotographic / Adobe Stock

After years of unsuccessful efforts to mandate health and safety buffer zones around oil and gas wells in California, Democratic state legislators managed to pass Senate Bill (SB) 1137 last year.

“The legislation prohibits the California Geologic Energy Management Division from approving a new oil well within 3,200 feet of a ‘sensitive receptor,’ defined as a residence, education resource, community resource, healthcare facility, dormitory or any building open to the public, reported Taryn Luna for the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 31, 2022.

Opponents argued that the bill would raise already sky-high gas prices and criticized the rushed nature in which the legislation was approved during floor debates in the Legislature.

Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer who covers national and state politics, reported on July 26 that a “committee backed by environmentalists and community groups  — launched with $500,000 in seed funding by ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt — will announce Wednesday it is fighting the referendum that would overturn SB 1137.

The new committee, called the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California, is hoping to counter a ballot measure on the November 2024 slate that is funded with at least $20 million from oil companies called Stop the Energy Shutdown. The oil company funded committee, backed with $4.5 million from Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC, and other petroleum companies, wants to overturn SB1137. The law has been on hold since the secretary of state certified the industry-backed ballot measure. 

Governor weighs in

Gov. Gavin Newsom made clear his dissatisfaction, to put it mildly, with the oil industry when the referendum was certified in February for placement on the Nov. 5, 2024 ballot, the second referendum to qualify to date that would repeal laws passed by the legislature.

“It’s one thing for Big Oil to make record profits as they rip off Californians at the pump, he said on Feb 3 in a statement.

[See related post: Holding Oil Companies Accountable for California's High Fuel Prices, April 4, 2023]

“It’s quite another to push to continue harmful drilling near daycares and schools and our homes.”

The two sides

Oil companies sponsoring the referendum maintain that oil not produced in California must come from countries without the stiff regulations imposed on the state's drillers.

“California oil extractors produce the only climate-compliant oil in the world and follow the world’s strictest environmental and labor laws,” Rock Zierman, chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Association, said in a statement. “Every barrel we don’t produce here must be tankered into our crowded ports, mostly from countries that oppress LGBTQ+ communities, restrict women’s rights, and decimate the world’s rainforests and environment.” 

In fact, California oil production has decreased for nearly four decades, replaced, as Zierman noted, by foreign sources, according to the California Energy Commission. Alaskan oil imports have decreased for nearly the same time period.

Outspent but not out-motivated

Chris Lehman, who is managing the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California, “said he is confident that his side will be able to raise enough to get its message out,” added Garofoli.

Californians do not want toxic oil drilling next to their schools, next to neighborhoods, hospitals, period,” Lehman said. “As long as we can make the case that that’s what this does, we’re going to be fine.” 

Wednesday, July 26, 2023 in San Francisco Chronicle

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