VISION scorecard reveals only 9 CA legislators are climate and environmental justice champions

A child plays in a playground right next to an oil well in California. Photo courtesy of VISION. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

On April 7, the environmental justice coalition VISION released a comprehensive scorecard assessing the oil and gas records of California legislators over the past nine years.

Despite the Legislature's constant portrayal of itself as the nation's "green" and "progressive" leader, only 9 state legislators emerged as "champions" in the scorecard.

Even more alarming, nearly 50% of Assemblymembers received an “F” grade for their ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

According to VISION, “It is the first and only scorecard to take into account the past nine years of service, cumulatively scoring legislators' key votes on environmental justice provisions and major financial contributions received from the oil and gas industry.”

“Grades were calculated by rewarding legislative actions that prioritize public health and climate justice principles and penalizing legislators’ voting records when they prioritize oil and gas industry interests and profits. The VISION Scorecard weights recent votes more heavily and penalizes legislators who accepted at least $10,000 in direct campaign contributions from one or more oil and gas companies and/or industry trade groups,” the group said.

Legislators who signed the “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge” and then violated that pledge earned a heavy penalty on the scorecard, according to VISION. 

“VISION plans to update this scorecard annually, and will continue to weight recent bills more heavily than older bills. As community members highlighted at the briefing this morning, these votes have real impacts on frontline communities and a very clear human cost,” said VISION.

The key findings confirm the findings of my hundreds of articles investigating regulatory capture by Big Oil and Big Gas over the past twelve years: Despite California’s “green” and “progressive” facade, the fact is that Big Oil, Big Gas, Big Ag and other Big Money interests have controlled the Legislature, Governors Office and the regulatory agencies in recent years.

Over the past decade, very few bills opposed by the oil and gas industry have made it to the Governor’s Desk. Legislation that never made it out of the Legislature include a bill to protect “marine protected areas” from offshore oil drilling; bills to stop fracking; and a bill create health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells.

The report card reveals the following data on the California Assembly and State Senate:

CA State Assembly:

  • Nearly 50% of assemblymembers received an “F” grade for their ties to the fossil fuel industry.

  • 30% of assemblymembers received an “A” grade for standing with environmental justice communities.

  • Only four assemblymembers emerged as Champions: Marc Levine (D); Laura Friedman (D); Richard Bloom (D); Al Muratsuchi (D).

CA State Senate

  • 36% of senators received an “F” grade for their ties to the fossil fuel industry.

  • 24% of senators received an “A” grade for standing with environmental justice communities.

  • Only five senators emerged as Champions: Ben Allen (D); Henry Stern (D); Anthony Portantino (D); Monique Limón (D); Scott Wiener (D).

Cesar Aguirre from Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) commented on the 9 VISION Scorecard Champions:

“We show you 9 assembly members and senators who stand strong with the values of environmental justice and climate progress even in the face of relentless opposition from the fossil fuel industry. Whether state house veterans or new to Sacramento, these champions don’t just cast good votes, they author bills. They use their platform to advocate for justice and engage with communities to find solutions to critical environmental problems.”

complete breakdown of legislators’ scores by voting record, campaign contributions, and pledge violations is available in this spreadsheet.   

The top recipient of oil and gas money in the Assembly was Mike Gipson, AD64, with $155,230. Rudy Salas, AD32, placed second in oil and gas contributions in the Assembly with $142,800.

The top recipient of oil and gas money in the Senate was Cathleen Galgiani, SD5, with $65,900. Steve Bradford, SD35, placed second in gas and oil donations in the Senate with $56,719.

In a press briefing, Wendy Miranda from Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) discussed her experience of living in Wilmington, one of the most polluted communities in the state.

“Growing up I’ve seen how it’s affected my neighbors and friends,” said Miranda. “It was very common for all of my friends to have asthma; we would always see them having nosebleeds throughout the day, or headaches from the odors. As a community we’ve experienced oil spills in the past due to leaking from plugged wells. As frontline community members we shouldn’t have to be constantly dealing with these issues every day.”

Juan Flores with the Center on Race Poverty and the Environment emphasized the importance of the scorecard in showing why California is so behind in regulating oil and gas. For example, even Texas and North Dakota, the top oil producers in the nation, have minimal health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells. California has zero setbacks.

“For community members and our communities specifically in the Central Valley, this scorecard is truly going to reflect why we are so behind in California when it comes to regulating oil and gas, something that is actually enforceable,” said Flores. “We want to see a ban on fracking, because fracking or any other method of extreme extraction is not a problem only for communities where the extraction occurs, it’s a problem for the whole state if not the nation.”

“Water used in fracking is even used to irrigate our crops. We, in the Central Valley, are the food basket of the nation, and our people, nationwide, are eating the food irrigated with this water. We have to be able to ban fracking as soon as possible. This drilling is happening so close to our community members that it is making our communities sick,” noted Flores. 

“I see this as a state failure because we have seen that other states in the country have been able to successfully ban fracking. If we like to brag that we are the most progressive state in the nation, then we should be the example for the nation, we should not be the last ones. We should be leading, and now we are behind,” Flores concluded.

VISION noted that this week, the Natural Resources Committee will vote on Senate Bill 467, a bill that would require CalGEM to establish a minimum setback distance between oil and gas operations and communities, ban dangerous extraction methods including fracking, and provide steps for a just transition for fossil fuel workers.

Senators Wiener and Limón introduced the bill in response to the urgent need to protect communities living on the front lines of California’s oil and gas operations and answered Gov. Gavin Newsom’s call in an executive order last September for a ban on fracking in the state, according to VISION.

The statistics on oil and gas drilling are particularly grim. According to VISION, “Nearly 7.5 million Californians live within a mile of an active oil well and are exposed to carcinogenic chemicals, asthma attack-inducing emissions, and the threat of catastrophic accidents or explosions. The vast majority of Californians who live in close proximity to oil drilling are from communities of color who are already severely overburdened with other forms of pollution.”

The state’s own independent scientific analysis of oil production in 2015 found that proximity to oil production sites increased exposure to toxic chemicals and risk of serious health impacts, according to VISION. Yet there is currently no regulation in the state keeping toxic oil and gas operations distanced from neighborhoods. 

You can access the VISION website to see the full scorecard here and watch the VISION Oil and Gas Scorecard briefing here

Big Oil Regulatory Capture in California

Campaign spending is just one of the seven methods that Big Oil uses in California to exercise inordinate influence over California regulators. WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 7 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 (7) contributing to non profit organizations.  

The powerful oil industry lobby in California in 2020 spent less on lobbying in California than it did in 2019, but still managed to defeat legislation it opposed and getting CalGEM, the state’s gas and oil regulatory agency, to double the number of new oil production well permits approved in the state.

The top four oil industry lobbyist employers — the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), Chevron, Aera Energy and California Resources Corporation — spent $10,192,047 lobbying the Governor’s Office, Legislature and regulatory agencies to advance Big Oil’s agenda in 2020, according to data posted on the California Secretary of State’s website by February 1.

The Western States Petroleum Association, the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying organization in California, spent a total of $4,267,181, less than half of the $8.8 million that it spent in 2019. The President of the Association is Catherine Reheis-Boyd, who chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to create so-called “marine protected areas” in Southern California at the same time that she was lobbying for new oil and gas drilling.

The San Ramon-based Chevron, a beneficiary of many new fracking permits this year, spent $4,091,501 in California in 2020, less than the $5.9 million in spent in 2019.  

Another big spender and beneficiary of large numbers of new fracking permits this year, Aera Energy, spent a total of $795,099 on lobbying California officials in 2020.   

Finally, the California Resources Corporation, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, spent $1,038,266 to influence state officials in 2020. 

The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) of the Department of Conservation, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, approved more than 1,700 new oil and gas production well permits in 2020, more than doubling the new well permits from the previous year, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance reported.

Since January of 2019, a total of 8,129 oil and gas drilling permits have been approved by the Newsom Administration.

CalGEM approved 3,745 total permits in 2020, a -14.5% change from 2019. They approved 1,709 new oil & gas production well permits in 2020, a +116.6% change from 2019.

The agency approved 1,992 new well permits (EOR & support) in 2020, a -15.8% change from  2019. They also approved 1,753 oil well rework permits in 2020 —  a -13.1% change from 2019.

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