Editorial: Oil companies spent millions to keep drilling in neighborhoods. California shouldn’t let them

Homes are seen behind a green and yellow pumpjack inside the Wilmington Athletic Complex in Los Angeles.
Homes are seen behind an oil pumpjack at the Wilmington Athletic Complex in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The oil industry spent $20 million on a misleading campaign to overturn a new California law that bans new drilling within 3,200 feet of homes and schools — and it’s paying off.

The referendum to undo Senate Bill 1137 qualified for the ballot. State officials announced Friday that they would suspend implementation of the law until voters decide its fate in November 2024, meaning that these new health protections are being lifted just a month after they took effect.

But there is really nothing preventing California’s state oil and gas regulators from acting to prevent neighborhood drilling in the interim, by denying oil companies permits for new wells in these buffer zones. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who signed the law in September, should direct the Department of Conservation Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, to use its administrative authority to adopt rules to prohibit new drilling in those areas.


Big Oil is posting record profits. It’s time for California lawmakers to get moving and advance legislation to curb excessive refinery profits and prevent oil companies from ripping people off while they pollute the planet.

Feb. 3, 2023

The governor has for months waged a vocal, public battle against Big Oil, saying Friday that “greedy oil companies” would “rather put our health at risk than sacrifice a single cent of their billions in profits.” Now he has a chance to show he can also act tough when it counts. He shouldn’t allow a powerful and polluting industry to buy its way out of compliance with a health and safety law it doesn’t like.

We can certainly hope that California voters will ultimately uphold the law and stop the oil industry from continuing to make money from drilling near homes, schools, parks and healthcare facilities under the guise that such practices will lower gas prices. But two years is too long to wait for health protections, especially considering how much the industry has already distorted the referendum process.

Oil companies are seeking to overturn a law to ban new drilling near homes and schools. Gov. Newsom can use his administrative power to say no to new drilling.

Dec. 20, 2022

Stop the Energy Shutdown, the oil industry-backed committee leading the referendum campaign, collected more than 687,000 valid signatures, exceeding the number required to get it on the ballot. But the process was clouded by disinformation, including complaints that signature gatherers were providing false or misleading information to voters, for example, by telling them the petition was to prevent drilling near homes and schools — the opposite of what it would do.

The California Independent Petroleum Assn., the industry lobbying group leading the campaign, has also claimed falsely that the buffer zone was instituted “without any scientific basis,” when in fact, it was based on the recommendations of an independent panel of public health experts and scientific studies that “consistently demonstrate evidence of harm” at distances less than 1 kilometer, which is 3,281 feet.

A nearly two-year delay in the law’s implementation will prolong ongoing health damage in these roughly half-mile buffer zones, where more than 2 million people live and are exposed to higher levels of toxic oil and gas-related air pollution. Proximity to oil and gas wells is linked to health problems including asthma, preterm births and reductions in lung function on par with living near busy roadways or with secondhand smoke. Hit hardest will be Latino and Black Californians, who are more likely to live near drilling operations.

California aims to ban new oil and gas drilling near homes and schools, but to improve health in pollution-choked communities it should end the practice.

Jan. 24, 2022

Regulators should waste no time using their existing authority to reject new drilling permits in buffer zones, just as they have already stopped approving fracking permits on climate change grounds. But a “notice to operators” sent out by the state suggests that things are back to business as usual for oil producers, and that they can expect the state to resume issuing drilling permits without subjecting them to buffer zones and other requirements under the suspended law.


Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Assn., said in an email that if state regulators were to enforce the law before the November 2024 election, “that would be illegal and industry would challenge it in court.”

California lawmakers adopted the ban on new drilling in sensitive areas to protect public health. Oil companies shouldn’t be rewarded with a spate of new drilling permits because they have the money to manipulate the state’s system of direct democracy. State officials should decline to approve new wells near homes and schools until voters weigh in next year.