Four environmental justice experts discussed their views on January 19 in “Media Roundtable to discuss pressing CA Environmental issues,” on California holding oil industry polluters accountable, limiting pollution in communities of color and SB 1137. 

Senator Lena A. Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) authored Senate Bill 1137 to protect the public health of California’s lower-income communities by requiring that oil and gas production company wells be kept at least 3,200 feet away from residential areas, along with requiring companies to monitor leaks and emissions and install alarms. On Sept. 16, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law and it went into effect on January 1. 

Currently, California’s 28,367 oil wells are located within 3,200 feet of residential areas in cities such as Los Angeles and mostly near communities of color, according to a report by Fractracker Alliance. Scientific research has shown that proximity to these oil and gas wells causes health problems such as birth defects, heart disease, asthma and lung cancer.

The roundtable hosted by Tzunu Strategies, a public and government relations firm, partnered with the Energy Foundation to create a webinar moderated by Tzunu CEO Arturo Carmona for media to connect and learn about the work of environmental advocates. Carmona is the founder of CALÓ NEWS.

“We hope this media briefing will shed light on the oil industry’s efforts to profit off the misery of Californians, while trying to shield itself from measures such as SB 1137,” Carmona said. “ We believe what happens in environmental policies in California most affects communities of color and low income residents who live in the frontline of the environmental fight.” 

At the beginning of the virtual event, Catherine Garoupa, Executive Director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, shared information about the existence and impacts of environmental injustice that her organization uncovered in recent years related to oil pollution in and around local communities. 

“Historically, California has been one of the leading oil producing states, with roughly 75% of that production coming out of Kern County alone. And Los Angeles has the largest urban oil field in the United States,” Garoupa said. “We found that of the nearly 5.5 million Californians who live within one mile of an oil or gas well, one-third live with the highest level of environmental pollution in the state. And 92% of those individuals living in heavily burdened areas are people of color.”

Mabel Tsang, Interim Co-Director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, showcased the troubling attempts by the oil and gas industries to petition overturning SB 1137. 

“Unfortunately, the day after the bill was passed by the legislature, news began to break that oil and gas industry filed a petition to overturn SB 1137,” Tsang said. “We saw that between October through December, the oil and gas industry spent over $20 million to gather petitions to put on the November 2024 election to overturn SB 1137 and circumvent a lawful health and safety buffer zone for families, toddlers, students, elders, people who are sick and people who are incarcerated.”

Mabel Tsang, Interim co-director of California Environmental Justice Alliance. Photo courtesy of Mabel Tsang.
Mabel Tsang, Interim co-director of California Environmental Justice Alliance. Photo courtesy of Mabel Tsang.

Tsang also said that in December while monitoring the petition process, her organization discovered that oil and gas industries lied to voters in order to falsely earn their signatures. The lies were reportedly told through signature gatherers during the months of campaigning ending in December. One such lie that was spread was that somehow signing the petition would lower gas prices, according to AP News.

Another panelist, Amee Raval, Policy and Research Director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, spoke about instances of oil industry price gouging gas prices and how it impacts locals. In a press release by the Office of Governor Newsom, a proposal is being worked on to bring penalties and regulations to big oil companies spiking prices. In 2022 Californians dealt with some of the highest gas prices in history with an average of $6 per gallon.

“The bill language that has been introduced sets a limit on how much oil companies can profit at our expense and sets a penalty for profits in excess of that margin. We don’t know yet what that limit will be or what the penalties will be either. We’re expecting to see details when the bill goes into committee,” Raval said. “In order for a price gouging penalty to be effective in saving Californians billions of dollars at the pump, one is that the cap needs to be low enough to protect against future price gouging. Two, the penalty needs to be high enough to prevent companies from simply ignoring the law. And three, we want to avoid seeing any massive loopholes like exemptions to specific companies.” 

Raval also said that the importance of SB 1137 and future similar bills is that they force accountability on the big oil industry for the economic and environmental safety of communities. She referenced the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond that’s near countless communities, so they will need to comply with the bill or be penalized.

Aree Raval, policy and research director at Asian Pacific Environmental Network. Photo Courtesy of Aree Raval.
Aree Raval, policy and research director at Asian Pacific Environmental Network. Photo Courtesy of Aree Raval.

Cesar Aguirre, Kern County director for Central California Environmental Justice Network, and a panelist, shared real life stories. “Eight families for nine months were evacuated due to gas leaks and that was just one incident not too long ago here in Bakersfield,” he said. “There was another explosion where a worker was injured.”

Aguirre recommended that impacted communities take air sample regularly, use air monitors and keep track of air quality over time.

“We find out that living near oil and gas-producing sites exposes you to carcinogens, to formaldehyde and a bunch of different gasses that do the body harm,” he said.

Aguirre’s office is in Bakersfield, one of the most polluted cities in California, according to a report by the American Lung Association. In his job, he works to educate affected communities about how pollution may be impacting their lives.

His experience has led him to cast a critical eye toward oil and gas companies in Southern California.

“Refineries need to be held accountable,” Aguirre said. “Not only for the public health and public safety, that they deteriorate, but making sure that they’re held responsible for the economic crisis that they caused and for the economic stress that they have caused on essential workers, front line families and all front line communities that make up delivery drivers, farm workers, and all people who uphold the economy. They are the ones who have to pay the most at the end.” 

SB 1137 has become law and the big oil industry issued a referendum, meaning that when California ballots come around on November 5, 2024, the bill may have a chance to be overturned.

Nova Blanco-Rico is about to graduate with a degree in journalism from California State University, Dominguez Hills and is a freelancer for CALÓ NEWS.