By Anne C. Mulkern, CLIMATE WIRE 

December 15, 2022

SAN DIEGO - The oil industry has likely succeeded in its bid to let voters decide whether to keep a new California law banning oil drilling near homes and schools.

Oil drillers and their allies gathered nearly 1 million signatures to get a proposition on the 2024 ballot to stop S.B. 1137 , said Rock Zierman, chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Association. They need slightly more than 623,200 valid ones to qualify.

Election officials must now check the validity of a sampling of those signatures. If verified, the petition would block S.B. 1137 from taking effect until voters decide on the law's fate in the November 2024 election. The law bans oil wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, parks and similar facilities.

The new law "would shut down production in the state of California," Zierman said. "We wanted to give the voters a say in whether or not this law, which [state lawmakers] jammed through in the last five days of session, should stand or not." California allows residents and groups to add measures to the state ballot, but gathering the required number of voter signatures is costly. Successful efforts are typically funded by wealthy backers.

Oil companies and their allies donated $20 million to the latest effort, Zierman said. It comes as Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders push to limit oil production in the state and lead the nation in fighting climate change. "Big Oil will stop at nothing to put profits over people - and now they're spending millions to overturn California's law to protect kids and families from drilling in communities," Daniel Villaseñor, a Newsom spokesperson, said in an email. "The Governor fought for this law and won't back down from protecting Californians from the oil industry's greed." Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, argued that the petition's likely success shows the power of the oil industry.

Eight drillers who helped finance the effort won 86 oil drilling permits this year for wells within the controversial zones covered under S.B. 1137, Court said. Court argued that the Newsom administration should stop granting new drilling permits for wells in the affected areas until the referendum is decided. "It's clearly a threat to the health and safety of residents," Court said. "The administration has the ability to deny permits," based on "the health and safety of residents."

Vision, an environmental justice group, has also filed a protest with the California secretary of state's office, arguing that the signature gathering broke state rules. Kobi Naseck, coalition coordinator with Vision, said the petition's block on the law won't go into effect until the secretary of state investigates the claims. In the complaint, Vision wrote that petition circulators lied to voters to get signatures.

In Los Angeles, the group wrote, two signature gatherers repeatedly stated they were circulating a "petition on lowering gas prices" and that they "work[ed] with the State of California." The California secretary of state's office did not immediately respond to an inquiry about how it would handle the allegations and the complaints. Zierman, with the oil drillers' association, said the secretary of state would investigate any complaint that's been made. "We have given clear instructions to our guys on the talking points" of the proposed referendum, he said. "We've been public about what it's all about, and so I think that's why people signed the petition in record time."