In summary

The oil industry is seeking to overturn a new California law that restricts where drilling can take place. Rather than wait for the 2024 election, oil industry opponents are calling on the governor to use his power to ensure the protections still go into effect.

Guest Commentary written by

Hollin Kretzmann

Hollin Kretzmann

Hollin Kretzmann is a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute.

Right now communities across California should be celebrating the monumental enactment of a new law to end toxic oil drilling within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, hospitals and other sensitive sites. Instead, the oil industry’s deceptive referendum to overturn the law qualified for the ballot, preventing it from taking effect.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has the power to protect communities and our climate – and beat back the oil industry’s appalling attack – all under existing law.

As a longtime environmental lawyer, I wasn’t surprised by the big money and deceptive signature gathering behind the referendum to overturn the setbacks law, known as Senate Bill 1137.

The oil industry’s given California plenty of experience fighting their greed and dirty tricks. And since they’re not content with having made record profits and harming communities by drilling anywhere they please for the last century, the fight apparently continues.

To be clear, banning oil drilling near communities is overwhelmingly popular. The new law would help protect people from higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other serious illnesses. But instead of accepting this commonsense reform, the oil industry spent more than $20 million to gather signatures to try and overturn it.

Those millions bought the industry a delay the law until the November 2024 election, when the landmark health-and-safety setbacks regulations will go on the ballot.

If Newsom wanted, there is a viable strategy to rip up Big Oil’s playbook and launch an all-out legal push to put communities first.

First, the governor can use his existing authority to stop approving new oil and gas drilling permits altogether. Given what we know about the harms to our healthenvironment and climate, there’s simply no reason to keep approving these dirty fossil fuel projects.

Los Angeles County, the city of Los Angeles and Culver City have already announced plans for a complete phaseout of oil and gas drilling. Newsom should build on these local victories by implementing a statewide moratorium on new drilling permits.

Second, Newsom needs to instruct state oil and gas regulators to restart their rulemaking process to put health-and-safety protections in place. Long before SB 1137 was even drafted, the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, proposed its own science-based setback regulation under its longstanding legal duty to protect public health.

But CalGEM hasn’t advanced those rules from its initial draft for more than a year. Meanwhile, the former Chevron employee who led the agency abruptly resigned after a sharp spike in oil and gas permit approvals – many of them within the would-be setback. CalGEM should pick up where it left off and put these critical protections in place immediately.

Third, Newsom has a key opportunity to appoint a CalGEM supervisor who’s clearly committed to advancing the state’s climate and environmental justice goals. No more revolving door, please. California can’t afford another supervisor who’ll bow to industry pressure to drill wells near homes and schools. The agency’s rubber stamping of oil permits, without even the environmental review and public participation required by law, must stop.

Whether fighting against oil companies fleecing Californians while raking in record profits, or signing important climate legislation, Newsom has taken significant steps to show he sides with people over polluters.

But California communities are suffering the health and environmental harms of toxic oil drilling right now. Newsom can’t let critical protections languish one more day, much less two years.

Now is the time for Newsom to use every legal power he has to protect people and our planet. By doing so, he’ll send the necessary message to Big Oil that buying its way onto the ballot hasn’t also bought complacency from California’s leaders. 

For years, activists have sought to restrict where oil production can take place in California, citing the health and environmental harm that disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities. The oil industry quickly responded after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 1137 into law, collecting enough signatures to put a referendum on the 2024 ballot. Oil industry leaders argue that the law will hamper in-state production, leading to more imports from states and countries that don’t reflect California values.

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