SACRAMENTO — Landmark legislation that gives people who live near oil wells and have developed cancer, respiratory illnesses and birth defects the right to hold oil drillers liable for their illnesses passed the California Senate Judiciary Committee in a 8 to 2 vote on April 25.
The legislation, SB 556, will now be referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“The legislation will hold the oil drillers presumptively liable for damages with minimum penalties of $250,000 and maximum penalties of $1 million,” according to a press statement from Consumer Watchdog and the Last Chance Alliance. “The presumption could be rebutted if the oil driller proved it used the best technology to mitigate risk or that the illness was caused another way.”
This legislation comes at a critical time for frontline communities in the Central Valley and elsewhere in California. Since the beginning of this year, CalGEM, the state’s oil and gas regulator, has approved 556 oil drilling permits. Sixty-two percent of all the permits approved this year to date are in the setback zone created by SB 1137.
Authored by California State Senator Lena Gonzalez, SB 556 “builds on scientific evidence proving a direct link between drilling and these maladies, the same evidence that was used to enact SB 1137 (Gonzalez), which banned drilling in the 3200 foot “set-back” zone,” the groups stated.
A coalition of more than 130 environmental, community, consumer and public interest groups that recently backed Governor Newsom’s price gouging penalty law (SBx1-2) are now supporting SB 556 in order to protect community health. Read their letter.
The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), California Chamber of Commerce, California Manufacturers & Technology Association, Civil Justice Association of Californians and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of CA oppose the bill.
After spending over $20 million in two months, the California Independent Petroleum Association and oil drillers qualified a referendum that put SB 1137 on hold until voters vote on it in November 2024. If SB 556 becomes law, it would further protect communities by making drillers liable for the harms they cause starting January 2024, according to bill advocates.
“One of my children suffered from multiple symptoms and it was scientifically proven that the toxic emissions from the oil industry was the cause,” Monic Uriarte testified at the committee, explaining how her family lived within 30 feet of an oil well. “In 2020 she was diagnosed with stage two reproductive cancer at age of 19.”
“She needed to choose between her life or her reproductive system, and I am sure she is not the only one. The oil industry poisons our lands, air, water and is killing people. When will it be enough?” Uriarte asked.
Uriarte’s daughter Nalleli Cobo spoke out about her experiences in an OpEd published in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, titled, “I grew up next to an L.A. oil well. California can protect others from what I went through.”
Members of the Last Chance Alliance also spoke out about the passage of SB 556.
“We thank the Senate Judiciary Committee for seeing what we see: this bill is simply the logical thing to do,” said Maricruz Ramirez, Community Organizer, The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (co-sponsor of SB 556). “The evidence makes clear that living near oil drilling and the emissions it creates causes the illnesses in this bill; therefore, it only makes sense that we shift the presumption of liability from communities to owners and operators. Taking into account the fact that 3,200 ft setbacks are not yet settled law and California continues to issue permits within that zone and beyond, additional protections for those harmed by drilling are critical.”
“Like the firearms industry in California, oil drillers need to be legally accountable when they don’t use the best technologies to protect communities,” stated Jamie Court, President of Consumer Watchdog (co-sponsor of SB 556). “Senators rightly voted to hold them to that same standard.”
“With today’s vote, legislators are joining California’s frontline communities in saying enough is enough. It’s time to hold fossil fuel operators accountable for neighborhood drilling and the harms that it perpetuates,” explained Kobi Naseck, Coalition Coordinator, Voice Voices In Solidarity Against Oil In Neighborhoods, VISION. “We won’t put working families on the hook for expensive medical bills any longer - not while Big Oil continues to make the problem worse.”
"Fossil fuel executives have known for decades that their products wreck our climate and poison our communities,” reported Woody Hastings, Phase Out Polluting Fuels Program Manager, The Climate Center. “Instead of acting to protect public health and the environment, they've lied and spent millions of dollars to convince politicians to look the other way. It's long past time they're held accountable. We applaud Senator Gonzalez for her leadership in standing up to oil and gas bullies and urge the legislature to pass SB 556."
“Nearly two years ago, the Oil and Gas Public Health California Scientific Advisory Panel concluded with high level of certainty that living near oil and gas drilling sites, cause a significant increased risk of poor birth outcomes and poor respiratory outcomes,” said Marjaneh Moini, MD Board Member, Physicians for Social Responsibility. “A Number of toxic chemicals released in the process of oil and gas operations, such as benzene, are recognized by the state of California to cause cancer.”
“Children born near an active well site are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer at a young age,” she explained. “Nearly 3 Million Californians live within 3200 ft from an operational well, majority of whom are people of color and a new study has shown that black residents are exposed to the most intense oil and gas operations. While big oil is pocketing record profits, Californians, particularly people of color and low income, are paying with their health and their lives. It’s time to hold big oil accountable. It is time for California to put an end to environmental racism and prioritize public health.”
“With Big Oil raking in $200 billion last year, it’s high time for the industry to pay damages to those they have been hurting,” argued Ramona Cornell du Houx, Communications Director Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA) — representing over 435 California elected officials. “For decades Big Oil operations have exposed people who live near oil and gas drilling to harmful pollution putting them at greater risk of developing several different types of cancer.”
“Finally, people suffering from oil operation activities would be given a measure of justice as SB 556 would make oil drillers presumptively liable for illnesses linked to their operations within the setback zone of 3,200 feet. EOPA California thanks the Senate Judiciary Committee and all legislators who are standing with frontline communities to ensure SB 556 becomes law,” she added.
“The fossil fuel industry isn't just fueling the flames of climate change, it's bringing sickness and death into our homes,” Faraz Rizvi, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, commented. “For over 100 years, oil wells and refineries have poisoned our air, land, water, and bodies. From respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease to high rates of cancer, our loved ones have paid the price while oil executives rake in record profits. We applaud Senator Gonzalez for championing SB 556 which will give communities the tools we need to finally hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the irreparable harm they do to our health."
“Making the oil industry pay for the cancer it causes is common sense, Hollin Kretzmann, Senior Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, concluded. “Oil companies put profit over people’s health, so being presumed financially liable for poisoning communities may make them reconsider drilling near homes and schools. This bill is an important step toward ending dangerous oil and gas extraction across the state and creating a healthy, livable future for all Californians.”
Predictably, the oil industry is strongly opposing the bill. The Western States Petroleum Association, writing in opposition to the bill, claims:
“The presumption that oil and gas operations are 100% responsible for adverse respiratory ailments, pre-term births or high-risk pregnancies, and cancer for any person in the health protection zone is scientifically flawed, because there are no studies that show any direct causation – instead, the bill simply imposes a blanket presumption of causation that oil and gas operators are singularly and totally responsible for such health effects. While the bill seeks to put the blame for respiratory, pregnancy, and cancer maladies solely on particulate matter (PM) from OGD operations, this flies in the face of the California Air Resources Board’s own statements documenting that PM originates from multiple natural and man-made sources in the state.”
The California Independent Petroleum Association, the group that gathered the signatures to put the health and safety setbacks bill on November 2024 ballot, also writes in opposition: “The state’s climate regime prevents oil producers from emitting any toxic substances from their oil wells and there is no scientific evidence that suggests oil production is the cause of any of the ailments mentioned in your bill.”
Total number of oil drilling permits soars to 14,623 since Jan. 2019
Despite the constantly repeated mantra by California politicians and media talking heads that the state is the nation’s “green leader,” the actual reality on the ground is much different as California regulators continue to approve thousands of oil well drilling permits every year.
The total number of oil drilling permits approved since Governor Gavin Newsom took office in Jan. 2019 soared to 14,623 in the first quarter of 2023, the FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog revealed in an analysis released today.
The two groups track and map new well approvals at the site www.NewsomWellWatch.com.
7.4 million Californians—nearly one in five—currently live within a mile of an active well, according to Consumer Watchdog and Fracktracker Alliance. Risk of harm from chronic exposure to toxic emissions from wells has been documented among residents who live up to 6.2 miles from a well.
During the first quarter of 2023, Ferrar said CalGEM approved a total of 897 permits throughout the state, a 40% uptick over the first quarter of 2022. All but one for new drilling were for work on existing wells, including fixing, deepening, and redrilling them. Permits for work on existing wells rose 76% over the same period last year.
“In the first quarter, 62% of all the permits approved in the setback zone—totaling 556—were primarily to repair or redirect drilling in existing wells to more productive geologic formations,” he added.
“An independent scientific advisory panel had advised CalGEM that a 3,200-foot setback—or one kilometer--between homes, schools, daycares, hospitals, and other sensitive receptors was the minimum distance to protect public health,” revealed Ferrar.
Nevertheless, he said Californian women living within 6.2 miles of at least one oil or gas well during pregnancy have an increased risk of low-birthweight babies. Proximity to active oil operations increases the risk of premature birth by 40% and the chances of a high-risk pregnancy by 30%.
Set to go into effect in January 2023, the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) sponsored the referendum that has delayed the implementation of the setbacks law for two years. Filings with the California Secretary of State reveal that oil companies funneled over $20 million to the committee Stop the Energy Shutdown, a “Coalition Of Small Business Owners, Concerned Taxpayers, Local Energy Producers And The California Independent Petroleum Association.
California advocacy groups are now demanding that the state regulate how petitlion signature collection is conducted, since the signatures were obtained on false and misleading pretenses.
Background: Big Oil spent $34.2 on lobbying in the 2021-22 session
In addition to $20 million the oil industry paid to challenge SB 1137, the oil and gas industry spent over $34.2 million on lobbying the Legislature and other state officials in the 2021-22 Legislative Session.
While a long and hard-fought campaign by environmental justice groups, with the help of Governor Gavin Newsom, was able to finally get SB 1137 approved by the Legislature, other important bills were stopped by oil industry-backed legislators. Those measures include a bill to ban offshore drilling off the California coast and another bill to divest State of California pension funds from investments in the fossil fuel industry.
In addition to stopping key climate justice bills, the gusher of Big Oil and Big Gas lobbying money also resulted in CalGEM’s approval of 3,382 permits in 2022, including 551 new well permits and 2,831 oil well rework permits.
The Western States Petroleum Association, the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in Sacramento, spent $11,720,912 in the 2021-22 session: cal-access.sos.ca.gov/…
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.
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) sponsoring awards ceremonies, including those for legislators and journalists; (7) contributing to non profit organizations; and (8) creating alliances with labor unions.
To read my story on how the Western States Petroleum Association has embarked on a campaign to sponsor dinners and awards for the media and journalists, go here: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2023/4/7/2162744/-Big-Oil-funds-dinners-and-awards-for-California-journalists