Advocates want to hold ‘reckless’ oil companies liable for health and climate impacts. Companies are counting on support from legislators, courts and voters
By Brooke Staggs, LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS
From storming the stage at a Shell shareholders meeting to filing lawsuits over anti-racketeering claims, climate activists are trying a wide range of tactics in attempts to shame fossil fuel companies and hold them financially responsible for the harms their operations can cause.
Oil companies are pushing back, spending big money and counting on support from legislators, courts and voters — so far with mixed results.
But big oil just scored another big win in California.
State Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from La Cañada Flintridge who chairs the Appropriations Committee, last week declined to let Senate Bill 556 advance for a full vote in the legislature.
The bill from Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, cited research on how pollution from oil wells that leaks into the air, water and soil increases the risks that nearby residents might develop cancer, respiratory illnesses and birth defects. And it would have given the more than 1 million Californians who live within 3,200 feet of active wells and who develop one of those health conditions the right to hold some oil drillers liable for up to $1 million.
Portantino offered no explanation for why he let SB 556 die. A staffer on Tuesday, May 23, said the senator doesn’t comment on bills that don’t advance. But the staff member noted California is projected to run a $32 billion shortfall next year, while legislative reports state SB 556 carries an unclear price tag due to potential court costs, administration fees and losses in oil revenue royalties. The law also could speed up potentially expensive efforts to plug thousands of old oil wells scattered throughout the state.
Environmental advocates point to data that show the cost of health problems suffered by those living near oil wells is even higher.
A state-commissioned report by public health experts last year estimated related premature deaths alone cost California $382 million a year, with millions more in health care costs and productivity losses due to asthma, low birth weight in babies and other health effects. Without legislation like SB 556, they say, taxpayers will simply be left picking up the tab for these costs.
A new study by ProPublica reached similar conclusions. The study estimates it will cost California up to $21.5 billion to safely plug wells, remediate land and otherwise clean up all of its land-based oil sites. That’s triple the industry’s projected profits, the news site states, leaving taxpayers to pay the rest — or live with the impacts.
“This was just a dirty political trick,” Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, said of SB 556’s quiet demise.
Court noted the nearly $33,000 in campaign contributions that Portantino has received from companies working in oil and gas over the past two decades. Shutting down SB 556 without a vote, he said, “denied the senators the ability to debate and hear an honest bill that’s needed to protect people.”
The news comes three months after oil companies stalled and potentially thwarted another bill from Gonzalez that passed the legislature last session.
SB 1137 was set to ban new oil drilling or major retrofits to existing wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, nursing homes or hospitals starting Jan. 1. That would allow California to join all other major oil-producing states, including Texas and Oklahoma, in establishing a minimum setback requirement for wells.
But despite claims over irregularities with their signature-gathering process, California oil drillers in February qualified a referendum on the setback question for the November 2024 ballot. Voters now will get to decide whether the 3,200-foot buffer dies or takes effect in 2025.
Oil companies are taking advantage of the additional time to keep drilling and repairing old wells within the buffer zone, according to data collected by Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance.
There was a seven-fold uptick in new oil drilling permits issued in the fourth quarter of 2022, data from the organizations shows. Nearly half of these approvals, or roughly 100 wells, were within the 3,200-foot setback zone. And the group says nearly two-thirds of wells permitted in the first quarter of this year were less than 3,200 feet from homes or other vulnerable sites.
More than a dozen of the wells approved within the setback area late last year are in Long Beach. Those wells are now the subject of a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, which argues in court documents that state federal regulators improperly approved those wells without conducting legally required reviews of the potential effects on environmental and public health.
As some cases play out in court, or head to the court of public opinon during the next presidential election, Court said advocates of SB 556 felt it was important to protect people living near existing wells as soon as possible.
The bill wouldn’t have stopped all oil extraction within 3,200 feet of homes or other sensitive sites, Court pointed. Instead he called it a deterrent to “reckless drilling,” since oil companies would have to use “best available technology” (such as elevated leak detection) to protect people near wells or be open to liability from anyone who lived nearby for at least 24 months.
“They have the right to drill. But if they’re gonna do it recklessly it is going to cost them a lot of money,” he said.
Under the bill, seniors and children who develop respiratory problems, pregnant women who deliver preterm or high-risk babies, and anyone who develops cancer wouldn’t have to prove that those health conditions were caused by pollution from oil wells to get between $250,000 and $1 million from the local oil driller.
The Western States Petroleum Association argued in statements opposing the bill that “there are no studies that show any direct causation” between adverse health impacts and living near oil wells. The trade group also stated that other factors could have contributed to health conditions or set them in motion long before residents moved near oil wells.
“This outcome is arbitrary, illogical, and is not supported by science,” the group wrote.
However, while direct causation is indeed hard to prove, SB 556 advocates point to volumes of studies that show people who live near oil wells have substantially increased risks of shorter life expectancy, preterm and low birth weight, and a variety of acute and chronic diseases.
Los Angeles community organizer Monic Uriarte explained in testimony supporting SB 556 how her family had been impacted by living within 30 feet of an active oil well. Her daughter Nalleli Cobo developed asthma, headaches and other symptoms when she was 9 years old, with Uriarte testifying “it was scientifically proven that the toxic emissions from the oil industry was the cause.” Three years ago, when Cobo was 19, she was diagnosed with stage two reproductive cancer.
“She needed to choose between her life or her reproductive system,” Uriarte said. “And I am sure she is not the only one.”
With Cobo and others like her in mind, Court said, they’re not giving up on SB 556.
There’s a narrow chance to get the measure’s protections worked into a budget trailer bill that will be on the table in coming weeks. Otherwise, Court said advocates will look to reintroduce the bill for next year’s legislative session.
Other efforts to curtail oil companies operating in California remain active.
In late June, a gas price-gouging law championed by Gov. Gavin Newsom is slated to take effect. The bill creates a special state watchdog group to monitor pricing by oil companies and to authorize penalties against companies found to be driving up profits.
Climate groups also are building a coalition to fight the oil industry’s referendum on the 2024 ballot. They’ll join other public interest groups Wednesday, May 24, at the State Capitol to rally in support of Assembly Bill 421. The bill, from Assemblyman Isaac Ryan, D-Los Angeles, would overhaul the state’s referendum process to prevent some of the behaviors that activists said they witnessed from Big Oil’s signature gatherers. It also would clarify how such referendums are worded on future ballots, replacing a confusing process where voters must mark “yes” to reject overturning a law with clearer language that asks them to choose between “keeping a law” or “overturning a law.”
Court hopes Ryan’s bill will pass before the November elections, so voters at least will have a clear choice when it comes to whether they want a buffer zone between oil wells and their homes.
That bill could come up for a vote on the Assembly floor as soon as Thursday. It has to pass out of the Assembly by June 2 to survive.