Big Oil Sets Its Pants Aflame Fighting Setbacks

California's SB 1137, which established a health and safety setback buffer requirement to protect communities from oil drilling operations, is being attacked by Big Oil. 

Drilling rigs in Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles County



A self-evident axiom of electoral politics is that if you have to lie about your position on something, it’s because that position would harm voters and sink you if they knew the truth about it. That axiom holds exceedingly true in Big Oil’s shady efforts to overturn last year’s long-overdue legislation, SB 1137 by Senators Gonzalez and Limon, which established a health and safety setback buffer requirement to protect communities from oil drilling operations. As reported recently by the LA Times, the process to gather signatures for a referendum overturning SB 1137 was pervasively fueled by outrageous lies from paid signature gatherers. 

SB 1137, passed last year as part of Governor Newsom’s package of climate legislation, was designed to address a dangerous deficiency in California law. Unlike other drilling states – even those like Texas and Wyoming that are not exactly bastions of stringent regulation – California had no law requiring any distance at all between oil drilling operations and places where people live, work, play, and go to school. So there was nothing, prior to the enactment of SB 1137, to prevent oil drilling at the fenceline of a home or daycare center. This lack of a setback requirement was a significant health issue, as reams of studies over time have shown that proximity to oil drilling risks poor pregnancy outcomes (birth defects, preterm birth, and fetal death), cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, asthma exacerbation, and other health problems associated with pollution from wells.

SB 1137 changed all that. This historic law mandates that no new drilling or re-drilling on existing wellpads be allowed within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, hospitals, prisons, and other places where people can be harmed. This new requirement catapulted California forward from being a setbacks laggard to a leader, with 3,200 feet being the largest statewide setback in the nation. The legislation also included some engineering controls to reduce emissions from existing wells within the setback. The bill wasn’t perfect – environmental justice leaders and their allies would have preferred to do away with existing wells within the setback, too – but it was a whole lot better than the way things were before.

Not at all shockingly, the oil industry did not like SB 1137. And due to California’s romance with direct democracy, there was something they could do about it:  put a referendum on the ballot that would allow voters to reject the legislation, and stay its effectiveness in the meantime before the election. The only problem is, getting a referendum on the ballot requires collection of a massive number of voter signatures – in this case, about one million (that’s 623,212 legally required plus a margin for error). How do you get that many people to sign something that could take away their legislatively granted health protections and put them once again at risk from oil drilling pollution?

The answer, it turns out, is easy:  you lie like dogs. VISION, a coalition of frontline organizations supporting SB 1137, has collected reports from all over the state documenting paid signature gatherers for the referendum outright misrepresenting its contents and effect. These unwitting oil industry minions, who descended on big box store parking lots and other well trafficked locations, had plainly been instructed to say whatever it took to get a million signatures on dotted lines, regardless of whether their arguments had even a passing acquaintance with the truth. The oil industry spent $20 million to fund these signature gatherers, and was sure as hell going to get its money’s worth.

The result was a mountain of full-on, four-alarm pants-on-fire fabrications flung at prospective signatories throughout the state.

The most popular lies deployed in support of the referendum are spelled out in a set of talking points that a local citizen was able to grab a snapshot of at a signature gathering table (shown here marked up for emphasis).  

VISION, Oildale CA, October 21 2022

The key point on the list, most popularly deployed by the signature gatherers, was the assertion that SB 1137 would result in $10 per gallon gas prices. While this number was entirely made up, it was quite effective at scaring parking lot passers-by during the peak of the gas price spike last fall.

The gas price lie was grounded (to the extent it was grounded at all) in the outrageously false assertion that SB 1137 would “shut down oil production in California” in its entirety. The legislation, of course, would do nothing of the sort. While some new and expanded drilling within the setback would be prohibited moving forward, all other drilling both within and outside the setback would continue (sadly) unabated. In any event, whatever small change in California production levels might result from the setback would have essentially zero effect on oil markets, which are global – meaning that a change in California production levels would have functionally zero impact on gas prices.

But this reality was no impediment to the signature canvassers, who plastered the gas price claim on their enormous banners and, as reported by a VISION volunteer, passed out lollipops to the students at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza while asking them to sign. The volunteer also reports that they threatened a lawsuit against the students who had gathered to warn others not to sign, and threatened to call the police on them.  

Alex Masci of CA Youth vs. Big Oil, Berkeley, CA, October 24, 2022

From there, the lies get only more bizarre and pernicious. VISION volunteers and allies observed signature gatherers brazenly asserting that the referendum would actually put in place protective setbacks - the exact opposite of its true effect of taking away those setbacks. This claim made its way onto signs posted prominently at the signature gathering tables, and was pitched to a community organizer in Oakland on November 11. My NRDC colleague Damon Nagami heard a variation of this lie in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles on November 2. When Damon asked the signature gatherer what the petition would do for oil and gas wells, he replied – after a pause – “make them safer!”

Ilonka Zlatar, President of 350 Sacramento, Sacramento, CA, October 31,2022

At times, the hired signature gatherers appeared to get bollixed up in their own low-information mendacity, spinning wildly confused stories about the referendum that would be comical if it weren’t for the fact that people’s lives and health are at stake. Like the guy who went on at length to a voter in Los Angeles on November 11 about how SB 1137 “unknowingly” allows for “old drilling,” but the referendum would ban oil drilling next to schools and hospitals, “which can cause Erin Brockovich disease.”  

All of this is, of course, flatly illegal. California law provides that anyone who “intentionally misrepresents or intentionally makes any false statement concerning the contents, purport, or effect” of a petition to put a referendum on the ballot is guilty of a misdemeanor. The problem is, that’s all it provides. It does not automatically invalidate the signatures procured under false pretenses. So the oil industry and its lie-wielding paid helpers have succeeded in barefaceing their way to the million or so signatures they needed to put the measure on the November 2024 ballot, meaning that operation of SB 1137 is suspended and drilling may continue within the setback buffer.

But since we’re talking about a ballot measure, Big Oil’s Pinocchio escapades have thus far only succeeded in buying it a chance to try to pull the same fast one on the entire California electorate. This time, though, we are forewarned about how low they will stoop to get that result. And forewarned is forearmed.  

And while voters can push back at the ballot box come November 2024, Governor Newsom – who promoted and signed SB 1137 last year and ferociously blasted the oil industry for pushing the referendum – is empowered to do even more to squelch the industry’s dishonest effort to deprive Californians of health protections. As recognized by the Los Angeles Times in a recent editorial, there is nothing preventing California’s oil and gas regulators from putting in place the 3,200-foot setback on their own – which was, indeed, their plan in motion before the legislature stepped in to speed up the process via SB 1137.

The Governor needs to take that step. Because there’s no reason the raging blaze in the oil industry’s pants should result in Californians getting burned. 

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