Calif. Senate Committee Votes 4 to 5 Against Bill to Create Health and Safety Zones Around Oil Wells

Adelita Serena of Mothers Out Front stands up for health and safety buffers around oil and wells at a rally at the State Capitol this year before Governor Newsom's State of the State. Photo by Dan Bacher. | 

By Dan Bacher |

Sacramento - California, a state that politicians and the mainstream media constantly tout as “green” and “progressive,” still doesn't have health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells like Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Dakota and other oil and gas producing states do.

The  Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water yesterday voted 4-5 against AB 345 (Muratsuchi), a bill that would help to create health and safety buffer zones for the nearly 1.8 million Californians who currently reside in highly polluted areas close to oil and gas wells across the state.  
Five Committee Members voted against the bill — even though the language of the bill was amended significantly from the original bill introduced last year.

As amended, AB 345 would require the establishment of an environmental justice program at the California Natural Resources Agency, and require the Geologic Energy Management Division of the Department of Conservation to adopt regulations to “protect public health and safety near oil and gas extraction facilities.”

The amended bill says the Department shall “consider a setback distance of 2,500 feet from schools, playgrounds, and public facilities where children are present,” but doesn’t require this as the original bill introduced last year did. 

The Committee voted to allow reconsideration before adjourning. ”The author and sponsors are currently working with the committee on potential amendments to the bill to be considered at the August 12 hearing,” according to a press statement from California Environmental Justice Alliance and VISION coalition.” 

“Despite the fact that over 270 environmental, labor, racial justice, public health, and faith organizations—as well as 79% of Californians, according to a recent poll—support the creation of a health and safety buffer zones between communities and oil extraction, today’s vote could leave the creation of an oil and gas buffer zone up to the discretion of the Newsom Administration’s rulemaking process,” the groups stated.

They also pointed out that one hundred advocates and community members in support of AB 345 “were unable to provide testimony after opponents from the oil and gas industry tied up lines reserved for supporters of the bill.” 

Calls from Chevron, Seneca Resources, and Aera Energy employees in opposition to the bill flooded the phone system used for public comments. As a veteran reporter, even I was shocked at how brazen the oil industry and their backers were in trying to hijack the hearing.

“Senator Hertzberg testified at length about what he considered to be dubious intentions of supporting organizations, claiming that AB 345 was nothing more than a ‘publicity stunt,’” the groups said.

Senator Stern, Senator Monning, Senator Jackson, and Senator Allen voted in support of AB 345, while Senator Hertzberg, Senator Hueso and Senator Caballero joined Republicans to oppose the bill, 

Senators opposing the bill are the recipients of thousands of dollars of oil and gas money. For example, Senator Anna Caballero has received $15,000 from the oil and gas industry, according to

Representatives of the groups spoke out against their treatment at the hearing by bill opponents yesterday.

“The fact that dozens of  Spanish speaking residents who are currently poisoned by the fugitive emissions coming out of oil wells near their homes and schools were denied the opportunity to express their support for AB345 during yesterday’s hearing is just another example of the environmental racism that they have endured, being unheard,” said Nayamin Martinez, Director of CCEJN and a member of the VISION coalition. “It is time for Sacramento legislators to open the phone lines but more importantly open their ears and their minds to establish the 2,500 ft setbacks that EJ communities need to protect their health.” 

Senators backing AB 345 included Senator Henry Stern (D-27), committee chair, who voiced his support for the bill as an urgent priority given the health and safety of essential workers living through the severity of the economic and public health crisis that all Californians are facing. 

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-19) countered opposition talking points by stating that if the bill didn’t do anything meaningful - as the opposition claimed - she wouldn’t think there would be so much attention from stakeholders. She also pointed to the important role the Legislature should play in helping guide Administration activities like the proposed rulemaking. 

Assemblymember Al Muratsutchi (D-66) also underlined the importance of protecting essential workers, low-income communities, and BIPOC communities, stating that AB 345 is a direct response to the systemic racism that allowed oil companies to drill in these communities in the first place. 

“Although we are disappointed by yesterday's vote, UDW members remain committed to providing relief to low income communities and communities of color who are disproportionately burdened by oil and gas extraction,” said Doug Moore, Executive Director of United Domestic Workers of America (UDW/AFSCME 3930), who announced their co-sponsorship of the bill the day before the hearing.  “As a union that is by majority women and people of color, we know that the fight for environmental justice is a fight for our families and our futures. We look forward to working with our AB 345 coalition partners to push for an oil and gas extraction siting process that treats all Californians as equals.” 

Bill supporters said they will bring AB 345 for reconsideration at the August 12 hearing, emphasizing the “urgent need” for the Legislature to recommend a health and safety buffer zone for residents’ health in an ongoing pandemic.

“The fight for setbacks is far from over,” said Ingrid Brostrom, Assistant Director, Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment. “California already lags behind the many other oil-producing states that have adopted setbacks, and is only falling further behind as states are increasing setback distances based on an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrating the serious health risks associated with oil and gas drilling. California prides itself on its leadership on issues of public health and the environment. However, if the legislature does not pass AB 345 this year, we must surely relinquish that claim.”  

“Frontline residents, advocates, the scientific community, and public health experts are all calling for Senators Hueso, Hertzberg, and Caballero to rise to the moment by creating common-sense health and safety buffer zones to protect the health of all Californians,” said Katie Valenzuela, CEJA Action Political and Policy Director. “While the opposition is trying to paint AB 345 as an unnecessary legislative gesture, there is currently no binding commitment from the Newsom Administration  to create any kind of health and safety buffer zone. Protecting the well-being of low-income, Black, and brown community members with a legislatively-mandated setback is the kind of emergency action that California needs to counter the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis.” 

During her testimony at the hearing yesterday, Valenzuela strongly urged the Committee to approve AB 345: “We implore you to listen to science, to put the lives of people like my family ahead of profit. As a resident of Oildale, CA, I was sent to the hospital too many times." 

After the hearing, Valenzuela also issued a separate statement regarding Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg’s verbal attack against her at the hearing yesterday:

“Yesterday during a legislative hearing of the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water held on the Senate floor, I was verbally attacked by Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg. I was there in person to testify as a primary support witness for Assembly Bill 345 authored by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, which aims to create health and safety buffer zones between communities and oil extraction sites, on behalf of the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) Action and over 100 other groups.

As is well-known in the Capitol building, the Senate floor is regarded as a hallowed place where members refrain from referring to one another by name in accordance with decorum and out of respect for each other. It was therefore shocking when, during the committee discussion, Senator Hertzberg aimed his comments in opposition personally at me. After I testified and resumed my seat in the gallery, Senator Hertzberg looked up at me from the Senate floor as he prepared to speak. He then proceeded to address his adversarial comments to me by name, repeating “Katie Valenzuela” angrily and pointedly as the focus of his comments several times as he spoke. He accused me of misleading community groups about the bill, and of failing to “do the homework” or “read the bill.” Senator Hertzberg’s rhetorical support for the spirit of the bill was an all-too-familiar gaslighting tactic commonly directed at women and advocates of color.

The Senate Majority Leader’s energy and language directed at me in speaking against the bill were patronizing, belittling, and intimidating. He insulted my intelligence, my intentions, and my integrity. In doing so, he also insulted the broad coalition of nonprofit advocacy and community groups who have worked tirelessly to pass AB 345 into law.

Senator Hertzberg condescended, demeaned community expertise, and used language that is all too reminiscent of the disregard and devaluing of lives of people of color that perpetuates environmental injustices. His blatant act of bullying me on the Senate floor went undeterred during a legislative hearing that was being broadcast live across the internet, including the more than 400 people who had called in to voice support or opposition.

And while I adhered to decorum and did not rise to defend myself, I am speaking up because every advocate and resident watching that hearing should know that what they witnessed was unacceptable, extraordinary, and should not have been tolerated.

I am calling on Senator Hertzberg to publicly apologize for his behavior. Further, since the Senator called on all of us to “do the homework,” I invite the Majority Leader to join me on a tour of oil fields in Kern County - where I grew up - at his earliest convenience.” 

I have requested a response from Senator Hertzberg’s Office regarding Valenzuela’s statement.

“Thanks for reaching out. We do not have a statement yet, but I'll be sure to let you know when we do,” wrote Cindy Baker, Communications Director, Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, in an email.

When I receive a response from Hertzberg’s Office, I will post it here.

Background: California regulators approve new fracking and oil drilling permits

Despite California’s image as a “green” and “progressive” leader, there has been a big expansion of oil and gas drilling in the state by both Governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom — and most of these new wells are located in communities with above-average poverty rates and/or communities of color. Numerous industrial oil operations in the state are located sited dangerously close to homes, schools, and healthcare and childcare facilities.

“Oil production sites use and emit fine and ultra-fine particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide and known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors such as benzene and formaldehyde,” according to the Last Chance Alliance. “Proximity to oil development causes and contributes to health effects such as headaches, upper respiratory illness, nausea, nosebleeds, increased cancer risk, and infertility. Those most likely to live near an oil extraction site in California are also those likely to be most negatively impacted: low-income families and families of color.”

AB 345 advocates say that the bill “would put California on a path to creating common-sense health and safety buffers between oil extraction sites, the pollutants they generate, and communities already overburdened with some of the worst pollution in the country.”

The bill came under strong opposition from the oil industry and some labor unions last year — and was eventually made into a two year bill by Assembly Appropriations Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego). Gonzalez has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from both the oil industry and labor unions that oppose AB 345. For more information, read Steve Horn’s article: Why Did the California Assembly Table Oil Setbacks Bill?

Oil industry lobbies against AB 345

The oil industry, led by the Western States Petroleum Association, the most powerful corporate lobbying group in California, is strongly opposing AB 345.

In a group sign-on letter, the Western States Petroleum Association writes in opposition that “AB 345 will result in a significant loss of jobs and cost the state BILLIONS” and notes that the Assembly Appropriations Committee analysis states that the bill could “cost up to $4 billion dollars in lost state and local revenue, as well as subject the state to significant legal liability under the takings clause of the US Constitution.”

They further claim the loss of jobs statewide would also be significant with approximately 7,000 high wage, blue collar, and union jobs lost, according to the California Senate Analysis.

In addition, WSPA says AB 345 “undermines the Governor’s recently established regulatory process. AB 345 pre-determines the outcome of the current regulatory process and MANDATES that it adopt a statewide setback requirement, and specifically to consider a 2,500-foot setback, with no regard to what the science and data concludes.”

Governor Newson ended a moratorium on fracking permits in April when the California Geologic Energy Management Division approved 24 new permits for Aera Energy LLC. Including Chevron’s new permits, Newsom has now granted a total of 48 fracking permits since ending the moratorium, according to Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Because each permit allows an operator to frack the same well multiple times, the actual number of fracking events authorized is 360,” explained Kretzmann.

The fracking will occur in Kern County, the center of the oil industry in California that already suffers from some of the poorest air quality in the nation. This means more environmental injustice for low income communities and communities of color.  

1400 new oil and gas well permits issued so far this year

In addition to the fracking permits, Newsom has also approved drilling permits for more than 1,400 new oil and gas wells so far this year. CBD obtained this number by adding the weekly numbers from CalGEM’s reports for new wells.  

The number of oil permits issued under Newsom since he took office in January 2019 now totals 7,474 according to a report by the FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog. The permit numbers and locations are posted and updated on an interactive map at the website:   

It would cost more than $9.2 billion to properly plug California’s existing oil and gas wells, and operators have not set aside nearly enough money to pay for this legally required cleanup, according to a California Council on Science and Technology report.

“Approving these permits is especially dangerous now, after multiple studies have shown air pollution increases our vulnerability to coronavirus,” Kretzmann said. “Each new well and fracking event is another step backwards for public health and climate change.”  

Why the increase in oil drilling permits?

Why has Big Oil been able to get what it wants in California during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s why: “green” image aside, California is a major oil drilling state and the oil industry is its largest and powerful corporate lobby.

Last year the Western States Petroleum Association, the single most powerful lobbying organization in the state, pumped more money into lobbying than any other organization in California, spending a total of $8.8 million. The San Ramon-based Chevron pumped the third most money into lobbying, a total of $5.9 million. The lobbying expenses of the two oil industry giants came to a total of $14.7 million.

During the first quarter of 2020, at the same time that the Newsom Administration approved 1,623 new permits, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), spent $1,089,702 lobbying state officials.

Chevron spent even more: $1,638,497 in the fifth quarter of the 2019-20 legislation session to influence legislators, the Governor’s Office and other state officials. The two oil industry giants combined to spend a total of $2,728,199 lobbying in the session’s fifth quarter.  

Big Oil’s well connected lobbyists

Steve Horn, investigative journalist, recently revealed in Capital and Main  Governor Newsom’s connections to lobbyists working for Aera Energy, which received 24 drilling permits from the Newsom Administration in April:

Horn reported:

“Aera, which also received 24 permits from the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) on April 3 during the early days of COVID-19, has well-connected lobbyists in its corner who work for the firm Axiom Advisors.

One of them, Jason Kinney, headed up Newsom’s 2018 transition team and formerly served as a senior advisor to Newsom while he was lieutenant governor. He is also a senior advisor to California’s Senate Democrats. The other, Kevin Schmidt, previously served as policy director for Newsom when the latter was lieutenant governor. Aera paid Axiom $110,000 for its lobbying work in 2019 and, so far in 2020, has paid $30,000, lobbying reports reveal.”  

Big Oil’s tentacles extend far and wide in California politics. Lobbying is just one of the methods that Big Oil uses in California to exercise inordinate influence over California regulators. WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: (5) working in collaboration with media; and (6) contributing to non-profit organizations.

A classic example of deep regulatory capture in California is how Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create “marine protected areas” in Southern California at the same time that she was lobbying for new oil drilling off the West Coast. Yet dozens of “environmental” NGOs strongly supported the oil lobbyist-led process that created so-called “marine protected areas” that fail to protect the ocean from fracking, offshore drilling, military testing, energy projects and other human impacts on the ocean other than sustainable fishing and gathering.

For more information, read:
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