Oil well setback law on hold pending 2024 voter referendum

California Oil
Posted at 7:51 AM, Feb 18, 2023

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — California Senate Bill 1137, passed by the state senate in 2022, was intended to establish setbacks of at least 3,200 feet for oil drilling sites in residential and urban areas like homes, schools, hospitals, public parks, and other health-protected zones. The bill was supposed to go into effect in January, but the state qualified a referendum to put the matter in front of voters in 2024.

Instead of going into effect in January as expected, according to Cesar Aguirre, Kern County Coordinator for the Central California Environmental Justice Network, things changed.

"Unfortunately, because they [people opposed to SB1137] did collect enough signatures, it is going to go to a vote, and it kinda puts the process on hold for a year or two," Aguirre said.

Although California Governor Gavin Newsom set aside $55 million out of the state budget to implement SB 1137, not everyone is in favor of the bill. The California Independent Petroleum Association launched a campaign called "Stop The Energy Shutdown," successfully petitioning to put a referendum on the legislation to a public vote in the 2024 election cycle.

For people like Aguirre, who fought for the bill, the main issue is the health component.

"A bill which creates protections for new infrastructure and distances that are shown to affect the health of people that live near it and unborn people," Aguirre said.

The health impact concerns come from studies like the one done by the California Council on Science and Technology that determined the most significant toxic exposures to public health caused by oil wells happen within a half mile of the drilling site.

Although the Secretary of State verified the signatures on the referendum petition and gave it a qualified status, the petition itself caught some heat for its lack of transparency by advocates who argue the talking points were not accurate.

Rock Zeirman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, says the organization was upfront with how it presented the petition to signatories.

"We gave clear instructions to all of our signature gatherers on how to present the bill factually," Zeirman said. "Opponents of referendums in every case have made this allegation."

Zeirman says the talking points given to signature gatherers by CIPA were clear.

"Reduce dependence on foreign imports, prevent local job losses, avoid cuts to government services, and stop higher gas prices," Zeirman said.

Aguirre argues that CIPA completely omitted the health impact of drilling near population centers and noted that language like "stopping higher gas prices" on the petition was misleading given the record-high oil industry profits.

Zeirman responds by arguing that refiners in California have to pay more for the transportation of imported crude oil.

"Other states in the U.S. depend on domestically produced crude, which is connected by pipeline, and so transportation cost is much lower. We have to compete for water tank oil, which is 70 percent of the oil we consume. We only produce about 30 percent of what we consume in the state," Zeirman said.

Aguirre and other advocates remain skeptical of the "lower gas prices" claim.

"When they are asking someone to sign a petition that is going to lower the price of gas, that is them asking you to help them lower their profits. You should always be suspicious of that because they are not asking for you to lower their profits. They are asking you to help them with lower regulations so that it is easier for them to make profits off of us," Aguirre said.

Now that the referendum petition's signatures have been officially verified, SB 1137 is set to appear on the 2024 California ballot.