By Brooke Staggs, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The photo above captures a scenario that would be illegal in some states.
California is unique among major oil-producing states in having no minimum setback between oil wells and homes. The legislature last year passed a bill to change that, with Senate Bill 1137 mandating a 3,200-foot buffer between homes and new oil drilling or major retrofits to existing wells. But 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.
Another bill aimed at protecting Californians who live near oil wells died before it could even come up before a vote in the legislature.
Citing 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, SB 556 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. Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, who authored the bill, put it like this as she championed the legislation before a recent committee decision: “Our communities bare the health impact of oil drilling daily, it’s time polluters pay the bill.”
However, State Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, last week declined to let Senate Bill 556 advance out of the Appropriations Committee he chairs.
Some readers cheered that news. Mary Emily Smiley, an attorney who lives in Lawndale, said there wouldn’t have been any way to definitively know whether such health conditions resulted from living near an oil well. “This sounds like another political hustle to convince people that they are victims and there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” she said.
But advocates of 556 point to volumes of research 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. And reader Alexandra Nagy in a tweet called the bill’s death under Portantino “suspicious,” noting details from my story on how the senator has received thousands of dollars in political contributions from oil and gas companies over the years.
There’s no future for SB 556 this legislative session, with only a slim chance it could get incorporated into a state budget trailer bill that might advance in coming weeks. Otherwise, advocates hope to get the legislation reintroduced next session. And with elections this fall bound to shake some things up, Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, said there’s a chance Portantino will no longer be at the helm of the Appropriations Committee if the bill makes it back.
In the meantime, Court and others are waiting on an Assembly vote for AB 421, which will reform California’s referendum process. That includes clarifying how 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 that might make next fall’s decision on the oil well buffer referendum clearer for voters.
AB 421 could still come up for a vote this afternoon and must pass out of the Assembly by Friday to survive.
By Brooke Staggs, environment reporter