Report Exposes $11 Million Dark Money Ad Campaign by Big Oil in California by Dan Bacher

By Dan Bacher | 

SACRAMENTO - In January 2024, the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California (CSHC) released a report revealed that more than $11 million in ads were funded by Big Oil in 2023 in an attempt to undermine a new law (SB 1137) that helps protect California communities from toxic oil drilling.

Chevron gave nearly $6 million to a third-party, Californians for Energy Independence, an “Astroturf” group, which then fronted the ad campaign, the report said.

The report also reveals how the California Independent Petroleum Administration (CIPA) and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) fund extensive ad campaigns fronted by groups that masquerade as "coalitions."

At the helm of the Western States Petroleum Association is President and CFO Catherine Reheis-Boyd-Boyd, the former chair of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to create faux “marine protected areas” in Southern California at the same time that she was pushing for new offshore drilling in state waters.

Some of the oil companies identified in the report that have spent millions on dark money ad campaigns or deceptive lobbying efforts include: Chevron, Valero, ExxonMobil, BP, Phillips66, Tesoro and Marathon Petroleum, according to CSHC.

This table, included in the report, shows more than $11M in dark money expenditures related to the most recent ad campaign:

Dark Money Group


Amount Paid 1Q – 3Q 2023

Californians for Energy Independence

Winner & Mandabach1


Californians for Affordable and Reliable Energy

Applied Paradigms2


Californians for Affordable and Reliable Energy

Unearth Campaigns, LLC3


Californians Against Higher Taxes

Unearth Campaigns, LLC4


Californians Against Higher Taxes

Media & Associates5


TOTAL spending attributed to ad blitz


“This cynical campaign hides the true source of funding from Big Oil as it attempts to deceive California voters about the clear public health benefits of making existing oil and gas wells safer by meeting tighter health and environmental requirements within 3200 feet of neighborhoods, schools, daycare centers and healthcare facilities, and keeping new wells from being built in these areas,” the group stated,

The CSHC coalition is calling for transparency to ensure voters know exactly who is paying for the deceptive ads.

"Though we expect this kind of big money bullying and deception from Big Oil, we will not tolerate it," said Martha Dina Argüello, Executive Director, Physicians for Social Responsibility- Los Angeles. "We know first-hand the devastating impacts of oil drilling near homes on the health and well-being of communities and the families that reside in them – it's a danger to public health, plain and simple."

"That's why we are sounding the alarm to tell voters the truth about Big Oil's campaign of deception – they are hiding in the shadows behind phony front groups," Dina Argüello added.

Just last year, while spending tens of millions of dollars on a signature gathering campaign, Big Oil was caught blatantly lying to voters and tricking them into signing a petition to stall and delay a new law that finally gave California neighborhoods similar public health and safety protections from toxic oil drilling that other oil producing states enjoy, according to CHSC.

"We are asking voters to see through Big Oil's fraud and vote to KEEP THE LAW (SB 1137) that requires existing wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, day care centers, parks, healthcare facilities and businesses to meet important health, safety and environmental requirements.  Keeping this law will also prohibit new wells from being built in the same buffer zone," argued Dina Argüello.

"This isn't the first dirty trick by Big Oil and it won't be the last," said Chris Lehman, Campaign Manager for CSHC. "But this report will help expose them and their toxic campaign so that voters understand what's at stake in 2024 – and for many California communities, especially communities of color, this can be a matter of life or death. Our campaign does not need to hide in the dark with dubious campaign tactics like Big Oil. We will work with California political law enforcement and compliance experts, as well as media outlets, to do our part to make sure voters know the truth and Big Oil cannot dodge campaign disclosure laws." 

"KEEP THE LAW" Campaign endorsers “include public health groups, community and faith organizations, and environmental justice leaders from across California, working to hold oil companies accountable for creating a public health crisis, especially for communities of color.”

For more information about the campaign, please visit their website at:  

Big Oil spent $25.4 million lobbying in California in 2023

But funding Dark Money ad campaigns is just one of the 8 methods Big Oil uses to influence California offices. The oil and gas industry spent more money on lobbying in California in 2023 than any other year on record besides 2017.

Big Oil spent $25,445,606 on lobbying in California in 2023 and $25,445,606 in 2017, according to the research team at Sunstone Strategies in their “Crude Truth” newsletter.

The group analyzed the California lobbying filings of every registered oil company in California, in putting 2023 trends into the context of industry lobbying for the past 20 years dating back to 2004. While in an earlier report on oil spending I used the raw data on fossil fuel spending from the filings on the California Secretary of State’s website, the newsletter used a slightly different methodology.

“Topping the lobbying spending charts in 2023 was Chevron, the second biggest oil producer in the state and the leading crude oil refiner. Trailing at number two: its trade association, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA),” wrote Sunstone Strategies.

“The two combined spent $18.1 million in 2023 — more than 71% of the industry’s total $25.4 in expenditures for 2023. Aera Energy, California’s top oil producer and a former joint venture of Exxon Mobil and Shell, placed in a distant third for 2023 lobbying spending,” they said.

However, in the fourth quarter, “WSPA and Chevron exchanged the number one and number two spots as the top lobbying spenders. Their expenditures totaled $2.8 million, accounting for over 60% of Big Oil’s quarterly spending total. Trailing in third was ExxonMobil, spending over $243,000 in lobbying for the quarter.”

The report also revealed that the state’s five major refiners, including Valero, PBF Energy, Marathon Petroleum, and Phillips 66, spent over $2.5 million on 2023 lobbying and influence activities.

Since 2009 I have documented how WSPA and the oil companies wield their power in 8 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) sponsoring awards ceremonies and dinners, including those for legislators and journalists; (7) contributing to non profit organizations; and (8) creating alliances with labor unions, mainly construction trades. 

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