Los Angeles Times

California shouldn’t let oil companies win on drilling


The oil industry spent $20 million on a misleading campaign to overturn a new California law that bans new drilling within 3,200 feet of homes and schools — and it’s paying off.

The referendum to undo Senate Bill 1137 qualified for the ballot. State officials announced Friday that they would suspend implementa­tion of the law until voters decide its fate in November 2024, meaning that these new health protection­s are being lifted just a month after they took effect.

But there is really nothing preventing California’s state oil and gas regulators from acting to prevent neighborho­od drilling in the interim, by denying oil companies permits for new wells in these buffer zones. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who signed the law in September, should direct the Department of Conservati­on Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, to use its administra­tive authority to adopt rules to prohibit new drilling in those areas.

The governor has for months waged a vocal, public battle against Big Oil, saying Friday that “greedy oil companies” would “rather put our health at risk than sacrifice a single cent of their billions in profits.” Now he has a chance to show he can also act tough when it counts. He shouldn’t allow a powerful and polluting industry to buy its way out of compliance with a health and safety law it doesn’t like.

We can certainly hope that California voters will ultimately uphold the law and stop the oil industry from continuing to make money from drilling near homes, schools, parks and healthcare facilities under the guise that such practices will lower gas prices. But two years is too long to wait for health protection­s, especially considerin­g how much the industry has already distorted the referendum process.

Stop the Energy Shutdown, the oil industry-backed committee leading the referendum campaign, collected more than 687,000 valid signatures, exceeding the number required to get it on the ballot. But the process was clouded by disinforma­tion, including complaints that signature gatherers were providing false or misleading informatio­n to voters, for example, by telling them the petition was to prevent drilling near homes and schools — the opposite of what it would do.

The California Independen­t Petroleum Assn., the industry lobbying group leading the campaign, has also claimed falsely that the buffer zone was instituted “without any scientific basis,” when in fact, it was based on the recommenda­tions of an independen­t panel of public health experts and scientific studies that “consistent­ly demonstrat­e evidence of harm” at distances less than 1 kilometer, which is 3,281 feet.

A nearly two-year delay in the law’s implementa­tion will prolong ongoing health damage in these roughly half-mile buffer zones, where more than 2 million people live and are exposed to higher levels of toxic oil and gas-related air pollution. Proximity to oil and gas wells is linked to health problems including asthma, preterm births and reductions in lung function on par with living near busy roadways or with secondhand smoke. Hit hardest will be Latino and Black California­ns, who are more likely to live near drilling operations.

Regulators should waste no time using their existing authority to reject new drilling permits in buffer zones, just as they have already stopped approving fracking permits on climate change grounds. But a “notice to operators” sent out by the state suggests that things are back to business as usual for oil producers, and that they can expect the state to resume issuing drilling permits without subjecting them to buffer zones and other requiremen­ts under the suspended law.

Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independen­t Petroleum Assn., said in an email that if state regulators were to enforce the law before the November 2024 election, “that would be illegal and industry would challenge it in court.”

California lawmakers adopted the ban on new drilling in sensitive areas to protect public health. Oil companies shouldn’t be rewarded with a spate of new drilling permits because they have the money to manipulate the state’s system of direct democracy. State officials should decline to approve new wells near homes and schools until voters weigh in next year.

 ?? Jay L. Clendenin Los Angeles Times ?? AN OIL DERRICK pump at the Wilmington Athletic Complex in 2022.
Jay L. Clendenin Los Angeles Times AN OIL DERRICK pump at the Wilmington Athletic Complex in 2022.

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