Community organizer Pete Woiwode was walking to meet a friend at a street festival near downtown Oakland in November when a signature gatherer approached and asked if he wanted to sign a petition to lower gas prices.
But Woiwode said that in reading the petition he realized it actually was for a referendum to overturn SB 1137 — a state law passed in September to ban new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet (975 meters) of schools, homes and hospitals.
As soon as he pushed back against the claim that the petition was about lowering gas prices, the signature gatherer buckled, Woiwode recalled. “He was like, ‘Look man, they’re paying me a lot of money per signature to do this. I know I don’t agree with this but I’ve got to have this job. I need you to sign this petition. Will you do it?’” he said.
Woiwode said no. “I’m not going to actively subvert democracy,” he told The Associated Press.
This didn’t just happen to Woiwode. Several California residents who spoke to the AP allege they were misled by signature gatherers over the last two months as a campaign, Stop the Energy Shutdown, sought to gather enough signatures to get a referendum on the 2024 statewide ballot to overturn SB 1137.
Among them was a man in Oildale, California, in oil-rich Kern County, who said a petitioner told him drilling near neighborhoods has no effect on human health. Another man, in Los Angeles, said a petitioner falsely told him the referendum would ban oil and gas drilling next to schools and hospitals.
SB 1137 — signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in September — was celebrated by environmental justice advocates who had been pushing for this regulation for years to lower air pollution in poor communities and communities of color.
But days after the bill passed, Nielsen Merksamer, a law firm that specializes in ballot measures, filed a referendum to overturn SB 1137 on behalf of Jerome Reedy, a board member of the California Independent Petroleum Association. That association has opposed several state and local measures to regulate oil and gas drilling, including bans and phase-outs in Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles.
The Stop the Energy Shutdown campaign began collecting signatures. Last week, it announced it had gathered nearly a million, well over the approximately 630,000 needed to qualify the measure for the 2024 statewide election.
These are now going through certification with the Secretary of State’s office. If enough are certified and the referendum qualifies for the ballot, SB 1137 will not become law in January. It will be put on hold until after the referendum.
It’s unclear what the Secretary of State will do about the alleged use of misinformation by signature gatherers. Joe Kocurek, a spokesperson for the office, confirmed it received several complaints alleging misinformation but declined to share other details, citing an “ongoing or potential investigation.”
Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, told the AP in a statement that “signature gatherers were given explicit talking points about how SB 1137 increases the state’s reliance on foreign oil, which is exempt from our strict environmental and labor laws.”
PCI Consulting, the company that managed the petition drive, responded to a call Tuesday from the AP and took a message for someone to call back, but did not.
Mary-Beth Moylan, associate dean for academics and a professor at the McGeorge Law School at the University of the Pacific, has studied California ballot initiatives for nearly 20 years. Since 2003, she’s supervised and edited the California Initiative Review, a journal that analyzes ballot measures ahead of every election.
“A lot of times,” she said, “the people gathering the signatures don’t actually know what they’re doing. They don’t know what their referendum is actually about.”
Moylan said Supreme Court rulings prevent states from requiring signature gatherers to be volunteers or knowledgeable about a petition.
“It’s hard .... to crack down on misinformation and disinformation in the process of signature gathering,” she said, noting that the millions of dollars spent on petition drives doesn’t encourage petitioners to be “thoughtful or deliberative” when communicating with residents.
Last Chance Alliance, a California-based climate action group comprised of over 900 public health, environmental justice, climate, and labor organizations around the world, heard that residents in California were encountering misinformation from signature gatherers and reached out to the AP with names of people who said they were misled. The AP spoke with six residents who told Last Chance Alliance this had happened to them. Five said they filed complaints with the Secretary of State's office, and the other said he was preparing to file one.
Woiwode said he was “frustrated” and “appalled” by his experiences with petitioners, in part because he’s a community organizer and manager with Reclaim Our Power, an Oakland-based organization that works to get clean energy access for communities of color and poor communities. In other words, he works in opposition to fossil fuel companies.
Ilonka Zlatar, president of the climate action nonprofit 350 Sacramento, was on her way to get Halloween candy from a grocery store when she saw the unattended table with signs that urged residents to support a ban on oil and gas emissions near schools and hospitals and halt the rise of gas prices to $10 per gallon. She said seeing the “blatant lies” on the signs was “infuriating” and that she included photos with her complaint to the state.
Jesus Alonso, the man from Oildale, said it was upsetting to hear the petitioner say there were no health impacts from neighborhood drilling, considering there are days when he has to keep his two sons home from school if air quality is bad enough.
Residents and environmental advocates say there’s a lot riding on whether the referendum qualifies for the ballot.
California’s Department of Conservation announced on Monday that it's proposing emergency regulations along the lines of drilling restrictions in SB 1137. California’s Geologic Energy Management Division is adopting regulations that would block permit approvals for new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of schools as of January 1, 2023.
Environmentalists are worried that regulations they worked hard for will still be stayed if the referendum qualifies for the ballot. And they fear that would open a window for oil and gas companies to get new oil and gas wells permitted within the 3,200-foot radius.
On December 13, a coalition of California-based environmental groups sent a letter to Governor Newsom and Uduak-Joe Ntuk, supervisor of the Geologic Energy Management Division, urging the state to issue a moratorium on all permits for new oil and gas wells within the 3,200-foot radius described in SB 1137.
“The oil industry is … spending millions to attempt to dismantle the hard-won protections in SB 1137 via referendum,” the letter says “It is, therefore, more important than ever for the state to step in to protect frontline communities and the climate by denying applications for state approvals for these dangerous oil and gas projects.”