A Recent Battleground in Big Oil’s War on Drilling Setbacks
Big Oil’s referendum on setbacks is the newest in a line of questionable signature-gathering campaigns. Would a latest bill reform California’s referendum process?
Earlier this month, my colleague Beth Kent wrote an intensive overview of the referendum in search of to reverse SB 1137, a bill passed by the California Legislature establishing a 3,200-foot setback between latest oil and gas wells and sensitive receptors, including homes, schools, and hospitals. That referendum (Ballot Measure 22-0006) will appear on the November 2024 ballot. While Californians patiently wait until then to forged their votes, SB 1137’s critical setback provisions are suspended.
But as Beth noted, Big Oil’s well-funded signature-gathering campaign has been tainted amid reports of petition circulators telling ‘blatant lies’ to secure signatures. These alleged lies range from the spurious claim that the petition exists “to lower gas prices,” to the outright false assertion that the referendum would prohibit neighborhood oil and gas operations (probably a successful strategy, considering Californians’ overwhelming support for buffer zones between residences and oil extraction sites).
On the claim that the petition would merely lower gas prices, there’s evidence that this can be a formal talking point developed and encouraged by a minimum of among the referendum’s financial backers. A now-closed job posting solicited “energetic and conscientious” people to gather signatures supporting a referendum “to assist reduce gas prices and forestall prices from increasing to $10/gallon.” There’s some irony there, considering this week’s special session proposal to carry Big Oil accountable for price gouging during the last yr.
Other misleading statements could be attributed on to the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), the oil industry trade association that sponsored the laws. In a press release, CIPA lobbyists claimed that SB 1137 “instituted a statewide 3,200-foot oil well setback with none scientific basis.” This claim, unsurprisingly, is inaccurate. A gaggle of researchers composing the California Oil and Gas Public Health Rulemaking Scientific Advisory Panel concluded that “studies consistently reveal evidence of harm at distances lower than 1 km, and a few studies also show evidence of harm linked to [oil and gas development] activity at distances greater than 1 km.” (One kilometer clocks in at 3,280 feet).
After all, Big Oil’s resistance to latest setback rules, safety regulations, and climate goals is neither latest nor unexpected. The industry has aggressively litigated local prohibitions on oil and gas activities––in addition to local setback requirements––under a wide range of theories, including takings, preemption, CEQA, estoppel, zoning codes, and so forth. And while this referendum is solely one other tool within the industry’s toolbox, using the ballot measure here feels particularly flagrant. That’s since it represents the capture of a system explicitly designed to place power back into the hands of the people, and away from special interests.
As Beth mentioned in her post, this $20 million ballot measure conjures shades of the American Progressive Bag Alliance (now the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance), an association of plastic industry members that paid $3.2 million to purchase their way onto the California ballot in 2016 in an try and veto a statewide plastic bag ban.
However it also conjures shades of the $7 million that Working Families for Jobs and Energy Independence (aka Chevron, Aera Energy, and CIPA) spent to dam an area measure enacting setback and health protections in Ventura County earlier in 2022.
And the $10 million that Save Local Restaurants (the International Franchise Association) raised to challenge AB 257, which might have raised wages for fast food employees.
And the $23 million that tobacco firms and trade associations spent to attempt to overturn SB 793, which banned the sale of flavored tobacco products.
The recent parade of industry trade organizations funding signature-collecting “bounty hunters” has drawn the eye of “labor unions, government watchdogs, and environmental advocates.” These advocates argue that industry referendums subvert the direct democracy process––largely born out of progressive-era reforms––and serve the very interests that referendums were meant to guard against. Indeed, recent referendums have made clear that cash is a mandatory precondition for access to the electoral ballot. Or, to go a step further, recent referendums have made clear that cash alone should purchase access to the ballot, even within the absence of a preferred platform. Quite a few articles catalogue instances of paid-per-signature petition circulators (lots of whom travel here from out-of-state) duping trusting voters with misleading claims or outright lies.
In a bid to combat this abuse of the referendum process, Assemblymember Isaac Bryan announced a latest bill this week, AB 421, that might reform California’s referendum law by increasing transparency and establishing latest government oversight mechanisms. The bill would require signature gatherers to register with the California Secretary of State, wear a badge displaying their name, photograph, and an identification number, and attend a compulsory training program. AB 421 would also require referendum petitions to prominently display the highest three funders of the referendum campaign on the petition’s first page, ostensibly to offset the slew of pithy-yet-uninformative coalition names that attach themselves to those petitions. Finally, the bill would require 10 percent of petition signatures to be obtained by unpaid volunteers, hopefully meaning that successful ballot measures could have a minimum of some grassroots support. Could the California Independent Petroleum Association really find enough volunteers––volunteers who feel passionately about drilling latest oil and gas wells near hospitals, schools, and houses––to face outside of grocery stores for hours on end gathering signatures without paying them?
It stays to be seen whether the bill will go anywhere. Former Governor Jerry Brown twice vetoed laws that might have banned paid signature gatherers on a per-signature basis. Despite calling Big Oil’s ballot referendum “one other push to proceed harmful drilling near daycares and schools and our homes,” Governor Newsom vetoed a similar bill that might have banned pay-per-signature compensation in 2021.
Regardless, even when the voters defeat the referendum in November 2024, Big Oil has already bought itself nearly two years of applying for––and doubtless receiving––long-term oil and gas permits throughout the proposed setback radius. The neighborhood drilling operations that the state permits between every now and then are more likely to proceed poisoning communities for a few years, and the referendum has undermined the work of diverse grassroots organizers, frontline communities, and environmental justice organizations.
As a final note, there could also be one other path forward while we wait for November 2024. In a recent CalMatters article, Center for Biological Diversity attorney Hollin Kretzmann noted that if Governor Newsom is serious about instituting the statewide setback requirement, he could conceivably push the California Geological Energy Management Division (CalGEM) to resume its own previous setback rulemaking, which has been on pause for greater than a yr. CalGEM has “long faced criticism that it was too cozy with the industry it regulated.” While a legislative approach to a setback requirement could be preferable for a bunch of reasons, Governor Newsom could conceivably take executive motion now to guard the health and welfare of California’s most vulnerable communities. The timing could be right for this; Uduak-Joe Ntuk, CalGEM’s embattled supervisor (and former Chevron engineer), recently stepped down as leader of the agency. Ntuk’s resignation got here following a spike in CalGEM’s issuance of oil and gas permit approvals. Newsom has not yet chosen a everlasting alternative for Ntuk, and the appointment process may function a possibility to secure a latest supervisor that can arise to industry pressure.