July 20, 2024

This story was originally published by CalMatters.

California’s oil industry says it is withdrawing its controversial ballot measure challenging a state law that would have imposed new restrictions on oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes and schools.

The oil industry, which spent $20 million to collect signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, withdrew its initiative just before the deadline today. Instead, the companies say they will challenge the law in court.

Environmentalists hailed the industry’s decision as a major victory because it clears a roadblock to a law that would ban new drilling and place safety restrictions on existing wells in communities.

But oil industry groups say the referendum has been mischaracterized by environmental groups. They said the kickback law would eliminate jobs, drive up gas prices and increase California’s dependence on imported oil. Complying with the law will cost them about $40 million over the first two years, according to industry estimates.

“Supporters of the energy shutdown can make baseless claims in the press and in paid advertising, but they cannot make those claims in court without evidence,” Jonathan Gregory, chairman of the California Independent Petroleum Association, said in a statement. said. “This is why we are turning from the referendum to a legal strategy.”

The ballot measure would have asked voters to pass a 2022 law, written by Sen. Lena GonzalezA Democrat from Long Beach, who founded buffer zones in residential areas. The law prohibits new oil and gas wells in those areas near homes, schools and other “sensitive” areas such as hospitals. In addition, operators of existing wells must take steps to improve their safety, such as installing leak detection equipment, testing water, and controlling dust and other pollutants.

Once the initiative is officially cleared with the Secretary of State’s office, the state’s kickback rules will take effect. Operators of existing wells within the buffer zones must develop safety plans by 2025 and implement them by 2027.

The state has permitted more than 240,000 oil and gas wells throughout California, with many clustered in Kern County, the Los Angeles area, and the Long Beach/Signal Hill area.

After SB 1137 was signed into law, the oil industry launched a campaign — which they called “Stop The Energy Shutdown” — to put the law before voters on the November ballot, a move that suspended its implementation. New permits to work on existing leaky or unproductive wells in those areas marched up while the new rules were in limbo.

“Big Oil saw what they were up against — and they folded again,” Gov. Gavin Newson said in a statement. “No parent in their right mind would vote to allow drilling next to daycares and playgrounds.”

The health risks from oil operations is at the heart of a decade-long campaign to protect families, school children and the elderly from the impact of drilling. The growth of the oil and gas industry in many regions preceded California’s sprawling growth, meaning it’s not uncommon to find drilling and refining across the street from subdivisions.

More than 2.5 million Californians live within 3,200 feet of an oil or gas well. Those neighborhoods are predominantly low-income — nearly 70 percent non-white — that disproportionately saddle communities of color with decades of health impacts.

“Heart disease, respiratory emergencies, premature developmental impacts, miscarriages,” said Mabel Tsang, political director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “It’s generations of families with cancer, it’s people who saw their childhood friend die because of oil drilling. A cradle to the grave cycle.”

The initiative’s withdrawal gives environmental advocates a victory over oil and gas interests, which have spent about $60 million to back the initial bill and launch the referendum.

Assemblyman Isaac Bryan, a Democrat from Culver City, negotiated with the industry to remove the measure from the ballot. Brian was dismissive of the lawsuit the oil producers said they would file, calling it an “act of desperation.”

As part of a deal with the oil industry, Bryan agreed amend a bill which he wrote, which would require plugging or abandoning low-producing wells near neighborhoods. He would also limit the bill’s scope to only the Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in California. (Bryan represents Inglewood in his district.)

The oil industry is very concerned about efforts that require the handling or cleanup of abandoned wells because of the huge expense involved.

A number of bills continue to make their way through the Legislature that are targets for environmental activists, who vow to continue the fight.

“There is no place for us to sleep,” said Tsang. “We played their game and beat them with their own rules.

Alexei Koseff contributed to this report.

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