In summary

Fossil fuel interests are spending big on local and state ballot measure referendums this year to dismantle laws that protect Californians and the climate.

Guest Commentary written by

Tomás Rebecchi

Tomás Rebecchi

Tomás Rebecchi is the Central Coast Organizing Manager for Food & Water Watch.

Fossil fuel interests have always resisted California regulations, but their movement to skirt the rules could be hitting an unsavory milestone. 

Flush with cash from record profits, fossil fuel companies have poured money into lobbying efforts at all levels of government this year. But even more insidious and unsettling is the time and funding the oil industry is investing in subverting democracy through California’s ballot measure system. 

Just weeks after a historic win in environmental justice policy, California Independent Petroleum Association board member Jerry Reedy submitted paperwork for a referendum ballot proposition that would dismantle the health and safety setbacks for oil wells under a new law, Senate Bill 1137. Frontline communities fought for these health protections from oil drilling for over 10 years. 

Since state law mandates that ballot measures only appear on a general election ballot, it would be at least two years until agencies could start enforcing the law if proponents gather enough signatures by mid-December. That two-year window would provide ample time for fossil fuel companies to snatch up permits that won’t be covered by setback rules if their referendum should fail. 

The CIPA recently boasted that the campaign, Stop the Energy Shutdown, has already raised more than $8 million. 

The fossil fuel industry used the same strategy with a Ventura County referendum earlier this year. Chevron and Aera Energy, a joint venture of ExxonMobil and Shell, spent $8 million to preserve a loophole that allowed oil and gas operators to drill using antiquated permits without environmental review or expiration dates. 

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted to close the loophole in 2020. But oil interests, including Chevron, Aera and the CIPA, immediately mobilized and spent $1 million to gather signatures to halt the protections and put them on the ballot. 

That group was also called Stop The Energy Shutdown.

After two years and a record-setting spending spree, the fossil fuel industry won the referendum in a low turnout primary election, overturning the ordinances and reinstating the loophole so they could drill freely using antiquated permits. 

If the oil industry can spend $8 million for a local election, Californians should expect similar tactics and greater spending with the SB 1137 referendum.

Newsom has decried the ballooning earnings of fossil fuel companies and promised a special session next month to pursue a windfall tax on their profits. While encouraging, this does nothing to reduce the industry’s impact on the climate or protect our democracy from its maneuvers to avoid regulation. 

Over the years, Newsom has accepted contributions from heavy-hitters in the natural gas industry, such as Sempra, parent company of SoCalGas. Most of the company’s infrastructure, like Aliso Canyon and a controversial gas compressor facility in West Ventura, won’t be subject to the 3,200-foot buffer zones – even if the referendum effort is unsuccessful. 

Newsom has the chance to demonstrate leadership against the creeping influence of fossil fuel corporations and their massive warchests. But to truly defeat these special interests trying to subvert our democracy, the governor must do more than tax oil companies. He must do what he has promised and what his executive authority gives him the ability to do: stop issuing fossil fuel permits immediately. Then he must ensure the 3,200-foot health and safety buffers apply to all fossil fuel infrastructure, including SoCalGas’ sites in Aliso Canyon and West Ventura. 

As long as our legislative systems are stifled by money from fossil fuels and our leaders remain silent, our democracy and our climate will suffer.

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