Group Plans to Sue Governor Newsom Over Illegal California Oil Wells

The letter was sent the day after protesters unfurled a banner proclaiming "Governor Newsom, Stand Up to Big Oil" banner over a bu...

The letter was sent the day after protesters unfurled a banner proclaiming "Governor Newsom, Stand Up to Big Oil" banner over a building across the street from the State Capitol. Photo by Dan Bacher. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

SACRAMENTO — As the Western States Petroleum Association and Chevron continue their capture of California regulators in a year of record heat, record fires and an unprecedented pandemic, the Center for Biological Diversity on September 21 notified California Governor Gavin Newsom of its intent to file a lawsuit to halt illegal permitting of oil and gas wells in California.

In the letter to the governor, the Center says giving out such permits “causes unacceptable climate and health harms” and that the permits are being issued illegally, without the review required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The letter was sent the day after protesters unfurled a banner proclaiming "Governor Newsom, Standup to Big Oil" banner over a building across the street from the State Capitol. That event was sponsored by WE, a coalition of 30 climate justice and social justice organizations. They also conducted a “blockade” of L Street in front of the Capitol while they painted a huge mural.

The coalition demanded that Governor Newsom (1) not sign any more oil and gas drilling permits and immediately halt all new drilling, fracking and extraction of fossil fuels; (2) take immediate action to begin California's just transition off of fossil fuels; and (3) take executive action to free those who are currently being held in unfit conditions due to Covid 19 and wildfire smoke in prisons and ICE detainees.   

According to a press release from the Center, “Today’s notice cites a bombshell investigation into oil spills just published by ProPublica and The Desert Sun. The report details how oil companies in California have spilled more than 20 million gallons of oil, including in spills termed ‘surface expressions. Instead of stopping the spills and imposing stiff penalties, the administration is allowing the oil operations to continue. Newsom is even allowing the oil companies to profit off their own spills by collecting and selling the spilled oil.”

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“The more than 1,500 permits for new oil and gas wells Gov. Newsom has issued so far this year aren’t just devastating for our health and climate, they’re also illegal,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center’s Climate Law Institute. “We’re asking the governor to stop the illegal permitting and start protecting Californians from oil-industry pollution. If he won’t, we’ll go to court to stop the flood of illegal permits.”

“The letter particularly criticized the governor for allowing steam fracking, the supercharged oil-extraction process implicated in many of the spills. One Chevron spill detailed in the ProPublica investigation started in 2003 and has so far spilled 16.8 million gallons of oil, more than the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez,” the release stated.

Crude oil collected from the spill has generated an estimated $11.6 million, according to the investigation. The regional water board was “unaware” of the spill until journalists asked the agency about it for the investigation.

“Steam fracking is extremely dangerous and has proven deadly. In 2011 Robert “Dave” Taylor died after falling into a sinkhole of hot oil and hydrogen sulfide that opened up under his feet. The operator, Chevron, was fined $350,” the Center stated.

A moratorium issued by Governor Newsom in November banned steam fracking on new wells but allowed operators to continue the hazardous process in existing wells, the Center said.

“Today’s letter comes as the governor faces intense pressure to bring his policy decisions into line with his rhetoric on the climate emergency. More than 750 organizations with the Last Chance Alliance have called on Gov. Newsom to take three urgently needed, common-sense steps to protect our health and climate from the oil industry: halt new oil- and gas-well permits, phase out existing fossil fuel production with a just transition, and require a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer between well sites and communities,” according to the release.

“This is a make-or-break moment for Gov. Newsom,” said Siegel. “He’s the one person with the power to take the big steps necessary to address the climate and health emergency created by the fossil fuel industry. He needs to protect Californians from oil-industry pollution in combination with other critical steps, like requiring 100% renewable energy and 100% zero-emission vehicles sales by 2030. Until he does so, the pressure and the outrage will only grow.”   

In a meeting and press conference regarding the California fires with President Donald Trump on September 14, Newsom told Trump:  “The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier. The evidence is all around us -- climate change is REAL.”

However, Newsom’s words contrast dramatically with his actions on climate change. Since he become Governor in January 2019, Newsom’s regulators have approved a total of 7071 oil and gas drilling permits in California, according to the data from Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance.

The agency in charge of regulating oil and gas drilling, CalGEM, has approved over 1540 new oil and gas drilling permits in 2020 to date. 185% more oil and gas drilling permits were issued in the first six months of this year than in the same six months last year under Governor Newsom,

The permit numbers and locations are posted and updated on an interactive map at the website: 

The reason why the Newsom is approving increasing numbers of oil and gas permits is due to the uncomfortable fact that the oil industry is the most powerful corporate lobby in California and exercises enormous influence over the Governor’s Office, the State Legislature and the State’s regulatory panels, commissions and panels.

Last year the Western States Petroleum Association, the 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 total oil drilling permits, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) spent $1,089,702 lobbying state officials.

Chevron spent even more: $1,638,497 in the first quarter of 2020 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 from January 1-March 31.

In the second quarter of 2020, WSPA spent $1,220,986 while Chevron spent $974,322 on lobbying in California, a total of $2,195,308.  

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; (6) creating alliances with labor unions; 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 corporate “environmental” groups strongly supported the oil lobbyist-led process, claiming it was “open, transparent and inclusive” when it was anything but.

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