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Oil industry referendum to overturn setbacks law becomes eligible for Nov. 2024 ballot

by Dan Bacher
The announcement of the referendum's eligibility for the ballot came just three days after Jan. 31 filings with the Secretary of State revealed that the oil and gas industry in California spent over $34.2 million in the 2021-22 Legislative Session against SB 1137 and other bills the oil industry was opposed to, including legislation to ban offshore drilling in state waters and to divest California retirement pensions from oil and gas companies.
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SACRAMENTO, CA –The oil industry-funded referendum to overturn SB 1137, the new California law requiring health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells, has become eligible for the Nov. 5, 2024, General Election ballot, California Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber announced on Feb. 3.

The bill was scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, but the approval of the referendum for the ballot will put the new law on hold for over two years, outraging environmental justice advocates, who have been pushing for the setbacks for years.

The new law would have required 3200 foot setbacks between homes, schools, hospitals, child care centers, parks and other facilities open to the public and new and reworked oil and gas wells. Unlike other oil and gas producing states like Colorado, North Dakota and Pennsylvania, California had up to this point required no setbacks around oil and gas wells.

“In order to become eligible for the ballot, the referendum needed 997,139 valid petition signatures, equal to eight percent of the total votes cast for governor in the November 2018 General Election,” said Weber. “The referendum has exceeded that threshold.”

Unless it is withdrawn by the proponent prior to certification, the Secretary of State on June 24, 2024 will certify the referendum as qualified for the Nov. 5, 2024, General Election ballot. 

The California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) sponsored the referendum. Filings with the California Secretary of State reveal that oil companies funneled over $20 million as of December 2 to the committee Stop the Energy Shutdown, a “Coalition Of Small Business Owners, Concerned Taxpayers, Local Energy Producers And The California Independent Petroleum Association.”  

"The Stop the Energy Shutdown petition, backed by nearly a million Californians, qualified in record time and will give voters a say on a measure that was rushed through last minute with little review and no scientific backing," claimed CIPA CEO Rock Zierman in a statement. "Senate Bill 1137 threatens the livelihood of over 50,000 hardworking Californians and forces the state to rely on more expensive, imported foreign oil that is completely exempt from California's strict environmental laws."  

Eight funders of the referendum campaign each spent over a million dollars and are responsible for drilling within the authorized 3,200 foot setback zone, according to the filings:

• Sentinel Peak Resources: $4,500,000 with 1,475 wells within the setback zone
ª Signal Hill Petroleum: $3,200,000 with 481 wells within the setback zone
• E & B Natural Resources Management Corp: $2,950,000.00 with 1,230 wells within the setback zone
• Vaquero Energy Inc: $1,800,000 with 472 wells within the setback zone
• Crimson Resource Management Corp: $1,587,000 with 253 wells within the setback zone
• Macpherson Oil Company LLC: $1,486,000 with 227 wells within the setback zone
• Holmes Western Oil Corp: $1,000,000 with 1 well within the setback zone
• California Independent Petroleum Association: $1,000,000; industry trade association without active wells

Governor Gavin Newsom, who signed SB 1137 in September, blasted the effort by the oil industry to overturn the setbacks law.  

“It’s one thing for Big Oil to make record profits as they rip off Californians at the pump. It’s quite another to push to continue harmful drilling near daycares and schools and our homes,” Newsom said in a statement. “Greedy oil companies know that drilling results in more kids getting asthma, more children born with birth defects, and more communities exposed to toxic, dangerous chemicals – but they would rather put our health at risk than sacrifice a single cent of their billions in profits.:

“I proudly signed SB 1137 last year to stop new oil drilling in our neighborhoods and protect California families. Big Oil knows that California is moving beyond fossil fuels, so on their way out these corporations are doing everything they can to squeeze out profits as they pollute our communities. We’re not standing for it. California will hold Big Oil accountable, and it starts with passing our price gouging penalty to prevent extreme gas price spikes like the one we saw last fall,” Newsom concluded.

Senator Lena Gonzalez, the author of the setback bill, also slammed the referendum in a tweet:

“Health protection zones for oil drilling overturned today! Why? Because…Big Oil • paid people $20/signature to lie • lied about protecting people when they’re protecting their own profits • continues to pollute our communities We still fight!”

Kobi Naseck, coordinator for VISION, the environmental justice coalition fighting for setbacks, said, "Big Oil pushed their $20 Million button to pay for a ballot measure to undo an immensely popular law. Really, it's a big bet, but what they don't understand is that they're betting against people power. They're betting against Californians, and they're going to lose." 

"This referendum effort has nothing to do with lowering gas prices, as the oil and gas companies have claimed,” said Brandon Dawson, Director of the Sierra Club of California, in a press release. “This is a naked attempt by polluters to eschew their accountability for poisoning California’s most vulnerable communities. These communities – primarily black and brown and low income neighborhoods – already bear the greatest brunt of climate change impacts, and repealing SB 1137 will put them at even greater risk."

The announcement of the referendum’s eligibility for the ballot came just three days after Jan. 31 filings with the Secretary of State revealed that the oil and gas industry in California spent over $34.2 million in the 2021-22 Legislative Session against SB 1137 and other bills the oil industry was opposed to, including legislation to ban offshore drilling in state waters and to divest California retirement pensions from oil and gas companies.

The gusher of Big Oil and Big Gas lobbying money also resulted in the approval of many new and reworked oil and gas well permits, including many within the 3200 foot health and safety zone, by CalGEM, the state’s oil and gas regulator. Uduak-Joe Ntuk, the state Oil & Gas Supervisor at the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), recently resigned from his job against the backdrop of a 754% increase in new oil drilling permits issued in the fourth quarter of 2022.

Despite Governor Newsom’s support for the setbacks bill, the Newsom Administration approved an astounding 13,725 total permits for oil and gas drilling in California, according to Consumer Watchdog and the Fractracker Alliance: c212.net/...

CalGEM approved a total of 3,382 permits in 2022, including 551 new well permits and 2,831 oil well rework permits.   

Big Oil spent a total of $4,220,214 in lobbying expenses in the last quarter from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2022. That brings the total of oil and gas corporation lobbying expenses to $34,270,001 in the eight quarters of the 2021-22 session: cal-access.sos.ca.gov/…  

The Western States Petroleum Association, the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in Sacramento, spent $11,720,912 in the 2021-22 session. They spent $1,734,594 out of the $4,220,214 spent on lobbying by the oil and gas industry in California in the eighth quarter.

Chevron Corporation, the San-Ramon based oil giant that is infamous for environmental devastation and degradation from the Ecuadorian Amazon to Richmond, California, spent a total of $8,631,118 lobbying California officials in the 2021-22 session. They spent $782,341out of the $4,220,214 total fossil fuel lobbying expenses in the fourth quarter.

WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 8 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups; (5) working in collaboration with media; (6) creating alliances with labor unions; (7) contributing to non profit organizations; and (8) sponsoring awards ceremonies, including those for legislators and journalists.
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