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Oil and gas companies start petition challenge to a CA law meant to keep drilling further from communities

Oil field pump jack near Lost Hills, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli
AP Photo
Oil field pump jack near Lost Hills, Calif.

Supporters of the referendum effort need to gather just over 623,000 signatures by Dec. 15 to get it on the 2024 general election ballot. If successful, the law would be put on hold until that election instead of going into effect this coming January.

Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill banning the creation of new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of community areas, like schools and neighborhoods. It also prevents major retrofitting of existing wells within this setback area.

But days after it became law, a lobbying firm filed a referendum proposition to reverse it on behalf of Jerome Reedy, a California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) board member. The lobbying firm represents a number of oil and gas industry leaders, like Exxon Mobil and Chevron. This past week, a signature-gathering effort was launched to try to get California voters to reconsider the law.

Supporters of the referendum effort need to gather just over 623,000 signatures by Dec. 15 to get it on the 2024 general election ballot. If successful, the law would be put on hold until that election instead of going into effect this coming January.

Before the law passed, buffer zones or setbacks between wells and communities varied in different parts of California, with many areas having no setbacks at all. Kobi Naseck, coalition coordinator for Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods, said that this law is necessary to safeguard communities from the impacts of pollution.

“We know there's plenty of vast oil fields in California that aren't next to schools, for example,” Naseck said. “We're just asking these oil and gas operators to relocate their operations to those places.”

Naseck said that he’s heard from colleagues that signature-gatherers have appeared at grocery stores and gas stations, claiming that the law will increase gas prices. He added his concern that if oil industry leaders spend enough on signature gathering, it could threaten the law.

“I can't tell you specifically where this will go, but I can say that if they put up the money, then it's very likely that they will be able to buy the law that they want,” he said.

In a press release issued to promote the signature-gathering effort, the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) said that the law “instituted a statewide 3,200-foot oil well setback without any scientific basis.” The statement also said that “decreasing in-state energy supply” would result in higher gas prices and reliance on imported foreign oil.

“This is why we have setbacks set by the state and local areas based on peer-reviewed studies by the state of California,” said a CIPA spokesperson in an email. “We do ourselves an injustice if we don’t follow the science and just act on emotion and headlines grabbing.”

Naseck said that these criticisms were misleading and false. On the 3,200 foot setback, he points to a CalGEM document that was put together ahead of the law’s passage in 2021. In it, a group of California researchers assembled responses to questions about creating setbacks and living near oil and gas wells.

In the document, researchers say that there are no studies designed specifically to test and establish a “safe” distance between oil and gas wells and community areas like neighborhoods. However, they write that “studies consistently demonstrate evidence of harm at distances less than 1 km, and some studies also show evidence of harm linked to [oil and gas development] activity at distances greater than 1 km.”

The researchers add that studies also show that increasing distance from oil and gas wells decreases “the likelihood and magnitude” of human exposure to numerous environmental stressors.

Given that a kilometer is just over 3,200 feet, Naseck said that the document supports the need for a setback area of that distance. Naseck added that California isn’t the first to establish a statewide setback.

“Colorado has a setback that was passed a couple of years ago, and there hasn't been a huge drop in in-state [oil and gas] production since then,” he said.

The governor’s office has criticized the referendum effort on social media and its claims that the law will contribute to rising gas prices.

Daniel Villaseñor, Newsom’s deputy press secretary, said in an email that the majority of oil and gas wells in California would not be impacted by this law. He added there are ample scientific studies and evidence to support the 3,200 foot setback and its impact on human health.

“Proximity to oil extraction harms health and is linked to negative outcomes like asthma and birth defects,” Villaseñor said in an email. “California’s setback law is supported by a panel of public health experts convened by the state’s oil and gas regulatory division, which found that studies consistently show evidence of harm to health at exposure distances of less than 3,200 ft.”

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