Postcard from California: Big Oil’s campaign to kill drilling ban near homes and schools

By Bill Walker

In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a landmark bill banning new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet – about two-thirds of a mile – of homes, schools, day care centers, healthcare facilities, parks, and businesses open to the public. The measure also banned “reworking” old, unproductive wells lying within the buffer zones.

It was a huge win for environmental justice advocates, capping a decade-long campaign to protect Californians from the well-documented health risks of living near drill rigs, including premature births, heart disease and asthma. More than 7 million Californians – disproportionately lower-income people of color – live within a mile of active oil or gas wells.

Newsom signed the bill, SB 1137, on a Friday. The ink had hardly dried when, the following Monday, the oil and gas industry launched a petition drive to throw out the new law.

Under California’s referendum and initiative process, if enough registered and verified voters sign a petition to overturn a law, it goes on the ballot in the next general election. But even before voters get a chance to decide, the law is suspended until the election. Once hailed as a progressive tool of grassroots democracy, the initiative process is increasingly used by special interests to kill laws they don’t like.

Two weeks before Christmas, the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) announced it had gathered almost a million signatures on a petition to block the law, which was supposed to take effect this month. If roughly two-thirds are certified by county and state election officials, the buffer zones provided for by SB 1137 can’t take effect until after November 2024.