A California law banning the creation of new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of community areas is heading to the November 2024 ballot.
After the law was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2022, a group oil and gas industry leaders launched a referendum effort aimed at repealing it. The secretary of state’s office announced the group had gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot on Friday.
The law, originally put into effect on Jan. 1, is now on pause until that vote. It was created to protect areas like schools and neighborhoods from the negative health impacts of pollution linked to these wells.
Before the law passed, “buffer zones” or setbacks between wells and communities varied in different parts of California, with many areas having no setbacks at all. Cesar Aguirre, Kern County director for the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said oil and gas industry leaders are furthering harm to frontline communities by delaying the implementation of these setbacks.
“What I hear is, ‘Keep putting your family in danger … Keep carrying this burden. To me, it's worth it,’” said Aguirre. “And I don't think they'd ever put their children next to an oil and gas well.”
Aguirre lives in Kern County, an area where residents have called out the impacts of leaking wells in their neighborhoods for years. In 2018, residents passed their own setback rule to keep new drilling operations away from sensitive areas like hospitals and schools. As a result, Aguirre said he’s seen how oil and gas industry leaders have fought against these laws in person and is not surprised to see it play out with this one.
“Not only is it disrespectful, it’s selfish,” he said. “It's a pattern that I have seen here in Kern County, and that has now leaked into the state arena for everyone to see.”
Newsom released a statement on Friday, denouncing the referendum.
“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,” he said in the statement. “But they would rather put our health at risk than sacrifice a single cent of their billions in profits.”
Advocates of the law say Newsom’s office can still act to keep these protections in place, even if the law isn’t in effect. One option offered by advocates is a moratorium.
“The fact is, regulators have a duty to prevent harm to people's lives and health, and putting a moratorium on new oil and gas permits fits perfectly with that mandate,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute.
Kretzmann added that CalGEM, the regulatory agency in charge of these permits, had considered creating its own setbacks in 2019. However, that effort was later paused for reasons unknown to Kretzmann and followed by the creation of this law, known as SB 1137 before its passage.
“Those have been on hold for over a year now, but there's no reason the state oil and gas regulator can't restart the process and adopt protections that would keep front line communities safe,” he said. “They have independent and pre-existing authority to adopt those regulations.”
Newsom’s office has not announced such plans as of yet. In a statement from his office, spokesperson Daniel Villasenor said, “The Governor is assessing options and he’ll continue holding Big Oil accountable by pushing for the gas price gouging penalty in the special session.”
The California Independent Petroleum Association, a trade association which represents natural gas and crude oil providers across the state, led the signature-gathering effort.
In an October press release, CIPA officials claimed the law instituted the 3,200-foot setback “without any scientific basis.” Advocates of the law, however, point to a 2021 CalGEM document authored by a group of researchers which provided evidence to support the setback.
In December, CIPA reported that it had collected 978,000 signatures in support of the referendum. Roughly 546,600 signatures were required for it to qualify for the November ballot, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
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