Progress Out of the Oily Mire

Southern California oil wells

U.S. Bureau of Land Management

I recently laid out my hope that Governor Newsom was positioning California to make actual progress toward transitioning away from oil production, starting by making public health and safety our first priority. I explained that there were multiple bills coming to him for signature aimed at better regulating oil and gas production in the public interest, including AB 936 by Asm. Robert Rivas addressing heavy “nonfloating” oil spills; AB 1440 by Asm. Levine updating archaic statutory language that called for maximizing oil production; AB 342 by Asm. Muratsuchi barring state agencies from allowing infrastructure on state lands that facilitates oil production affecting federal lands; and AB 1057 and SB 551 by Asm. Limón and Sen. Jackson, respectively, aimed at ensuring that taxpayers don’t foot the bill for well decommissioning. Limón’s bill also directs the oil and gas supervisor to coordinate with other agencies in furtherance of the goals of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, and to support the state’s clean energy goals.    

Now that Governor Newsom has taken action on all of these bills, I can report that my hope mostly came to fruition, with one confusing exception: he vetoed AB 1440, stating that it “doesn’t go far enough” and citing his signature on AB 1057 as a substitute. In fact, the two bills worked in concert, and AB 1440 would have bolstered the state’s legal authority to consider public health, safety and natural resources first in regulating oil and gas production. Nevertheless, the new laws are a net positive for the state, for all of the communities who bear the brunt of living with California’s oil production industry operating in their backyard, and for anyone who enjoys our state’s marvelous coast and waterways and does not wish to see them fouled by a destructive spill. 

This is all, of course, a beginning and not an end.  California is still a major oil producer, the 7th largest in the U.S. State law still contains no requirement of any setback between polluting oil production operations and homes, schools, hospitals, and the like—an inexcusable problem that Asm. Muratsuchi’s AB 345, teed up for the 2020 legislative session, would address. California continues to produce crude oil that is some of the dirtiest in the world, rivaling Canadian tar sands crude in carbon intensity - which results in California’s refineries producing more dirty petroleum coke (or “petcoke”) than they produce gasoline.

The oil and gas regulatory agency (renamed the “Geologic Energy Management Division” by AB 1057) needs to continue its culture shift away from a focus on serving the oil industry and facilitating production, and toward a focus on strictly regulating production and ultimately phasing it out completely. AB 1440 would have been another tool in the state’s toolbox to nudge the agency in this direction and take the state where Governor Newsom says he wants to go. Meanwhile, the oil industry continues to hold sway over many of our state’s leaders with millions of dollars spent on lobbying each year, making our continued collective efforts toward managed decline of oil production an uphill battle.  

But as they say, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time; and we appreciate the Governor and the legislature having taken the first chomp.

About the Authors

Ann Alexander

Senior Attorney, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

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