California just can’t quit Big Oil

California Democrats face a deep-pocketed oil industry and some internal dissent.

By: - May 8, 2023 5:00 am
Pumpjacks operate in an oil field in McKittrick, California.

Pumpjacks operate in an oil field in McKittrick, Calif. Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento say it is challenging to enact new oil restrictions, even with a supermajority. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is an oil state.

For a century, the Golden State has been one of the leading oil producers in the country. Although production has declined in recent decades, fossil fuels remain a major source of jobs and tax revenue.

That’s why a crusade against oil that is revving up in the Democratic-dominated state legislature might founder, even in this bluest of blue states. To enact meaningful fossil fuel restrictions, bill sponsors and climate activists will have to overcome the deep-pocketed oil industry and a united Republican bloc.

But the biggest challenge is the resistance of some Democrats, swayed by the prospect of job losses in their districts and, critics say, generous campaign contributions.

A few Democratic lawmakers this year have introduced measures that would hold oil and gas well operators liable for nearby residents who fall ill, divest state retirement funds from oil companies and require operators to front all costs for eventually plugging and abandoning their oil and gas wells.

But Democratic state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, who authored some of these bills, was circumspect about their chances.

“In this climate, even when people say, ‘In California, you’ve got a supermajority, you can get this done even in the supermajority,’ we know that it still remains very difficult — very, very difficult — to get these types of legislation passed,” she told Stateline.

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Last session, a measure authored by Gonzalez to protect communities by creating safety zones around oil and gas wells passed “by the hair of our chinny chin-chin,” she said, after it languished for months without getting a vote.

Woody Hastings, the program manager for the Phase Out Polluting Fuels project at the Climate Center, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that advocates for and tracks environmental legislation, said California’s race to a green economy often hits roadblocks erected by “Big Oil.”

“It doesn’t matter what letter comes after a legislator’s name, ‘D,’ ‘R,’ doesn’t matter,” he said. “Commonsense legislation would happen. It doesn’t. Why? Because you have legislators swayed by where they get their campaign contributions.”

Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, agreed that the oil industry remains a “huge force” in California politics.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, the money flows both ways,” he said. “That’s why California has been such a laggard in this policy.”

Indeed, over the past four years, the oil industry and supporting interest groups — including the Western States Petroleum Association, Chevron and others — spent $72 million on lobbying and campaign contributions at the state Capitol, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Sacramento Bee.

That money has made a difference, environmentalists say, helping to kill some measures even before they made it to the floor for a vote.

When the legislature attempted to create safety zones around oil and gas wells in 2020, for example, the measure died in committee after three Democrats voted with Republicans to oppose the measure. Democratic state Sen. Ben Hueso, who no longer serves in the state Senate, called the legislation a “publicity stunt” by environmental groups.

In 2021, a bill that would have banned fracking in California also died in committee. One opponent, Democratic state Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, said she voted against it because she thought the state needed to do more to fill the energy gaps left by the transition to a green economy.

“Most of my constituents can’t afford expensive electric cars,” she told the California Globe at the time.

Since a 2021 oil spill off Huntington Beach, Democratic state Sen. Dave Min has twice proposed a ban on offshore drilling in state waters. Last year, Min’s bill failed to get out of the Senate Appropriations Committee — doomed by his fellow Democrats in a unanimous vote.

The oil and gas industry also has benefited from the steadfast support of the California legislature’s tiny GOP minority. Only 26 of 120 state lawmakers are Republican, but they have remained united in opposition to new restrictions on the industry.

Republican state Sen. Shannon Grove, who represents Kern County, the state’s largest oil producer, said targeting the oil industry will harm California’s economy, cost jobs and force the state to rely more heavily on oil from unfriendly countries. She sponsored a bill this session that would force state regulators to study the environmental impact of using foreign oil.

“It’s really sad,” she said. “When you look at the policies that are being passed, it’s just another attack on the oil industry.”

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Kevin Slagle, spokesperson for the Sacramento-based Western States Petroleum Association, rejected the idea that Democrats are having a hard time passing new restrictions.

Earlier this year, for example, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a measure that added new oversight and punishment mechanisms to prevent price gouging by oil companies. Slagle said this was just another step in Newsom’s drive to “eliminate” the oil industry. And state regulators announced last month that California would ban new diesel truck sales by 2036.

Slagle acknowledges that California is undergoing a transition to clean energy. But in the meantime, he said, the state needs a steady oil supply to meet the needs of residents and businesses.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “The reality of it is our industry is going to be a critical part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future. We ought to be trying to do this together with all the best resources.”

Closed windows

Nalleli Cobo grew up with her South Los Angeles home’s windows closed.

She knew that if she opened them, toxic fumes from the oil well behind her house would flow in and make her and her family sick. Those same fumes gave her asthma, headaches, nosebleeds, heart palpitations and, later, reproductive cancer, which she beat at the cost of never being able to have children.

“That was the reality not only for me, but for my community and for my family,” said Cobo, 22, whose mother and grandmother also developed asthma.

She was one of more than a half-million Angelenos who live within a quarter-mile of an active oil and gas well. As a child, she launched her nonprofit People not Pozos (“wells” in Spanish) to pressure the city to phase out all oil and gas wells in the city. When the well eventually closed in her neighborhood in 2020, she opened the windows and screamed in joy.

Cobo is one of many activists who spent more than a decade pressuring state officials to set up safety zones for oil and gas drilling.

Last year, Newsom signed into law a measure that would have prevented new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of sensitive areas throughout the state, such as homes, hospitals and schools. California is one of the last states without such setbacks. This was the third attempt by the legislature to pass the bill.

But the law never went into effect.

Backed by the oil and gas industry, opponents gathered enough signatures to place a referendum on the 2024 ballot on whether to keep the law. They argued that it would hinder the state’s oil production and increase gas prices.

Until voters have their say, the measure remains in limbo. Meanwhile, California regulators are still granting oil and gas leases statewide.

In the first three months of the year, California has granted nearly 900 permits to oil companies to rework their wells, according to the FracTracker Alliance, a data-transparency and environmental health nonprofit. More than half of those were within 3,200 feet of sensitive areas.

“The industry is concerned that they’re not going to be able to obtain these permits in the future if the law does go into effect,” said Kyle Ferrar, the Western program coordinator for the organization. “They’re doing what they can to get them now and they’re disregarding the health and safety of these frontline communities.”

Not far enough?

Some California environmentalists want the Newsom administration and Democratic lawmakers to try harder.

Tensions were on display last month in Sacramento, where hundreds of climate activists, Democratic state lawmakers and other state and local government officials gathered for the California Climate Policy Summit, which the Climate Center hosted.

Speaking to the conference, Lauren Sanchez, Newsom’s senior climate adviser, was twice challenged by audience members about why the California Geologic Energy Management Division, a state regulator known as CalGEM, was still granting new oil and gas permits near sensitive areas, such as homes and schools.

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While she is disappointed that last year’s measure is on hold until voters decide on the referendum next year, Sanchez said state regulators were “following the law” by issuing new permits.

“It was one of the governor’s proudest bills he signed last year,” she added. “He’s very committed to fighting that referendum and making sure that Californians don’t choose a future where there is day care drilling.”

This answer did not satisfy many of the attending activists, including Kobi Naseck, the coalition coordinator at Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods, a group of California-based environmental justice and public health groups known as VISIÓN.

“Every day that Gov. Newsom wakes up as governor he can decide to do more, and he hasn’t,” Naseck said. “It really comes down to whether the Newsom administration has the guts to take on the oil industry where the permitting and where the monitoring actually happens, and that’s in the CalGEM agency.”

Targeting ‘DINOs’

Democrats who break ranks to oppose new oil industry restrictions may be targeted in upcoming elections, according to RL Miller, the political director of the grassroots political group Climate Hawks Vote. In an interview with Stateline, Miller disparaged Democrats who vote against anti-fossil fuel measures as “DINOs” — Democrats in Name Only.

But party leaders didn’t wait for voters to punish one of the two Democratic lawmakers who opposed the price-gouging measure earlier this year.

Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains, who represents oil-rich Kern County, argued it amounted to a gas tax that would lead to a spike in energy prices. “Stand alone if you must, but always stand for the truth,” she wrote in a tweet. “I will never throw my constituents under the bus.”

To punish Bains, Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon kicked her off the Business and Professions Committee, though he reinstated her last week. Bains did not respond to Stateline requests for comment.

Kretzmann hopes it’s only a matter of time before the oil industry is losing its grip in the state legislature.

“Good policy and good politics are aligned here,” he said. “It’s frustrating and confusing to the general public when we don’t see the legislature acting in the best interest of Californians.”


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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.