SB 1137 will require oil and gas operators in protected areas to implement strict pollution controls and develop response plans to protect the health of Californians living within 3,200 feet of an existing oil well.
SB 1137 will require oil and gas operators in protected areas to implement strict pollution controls and develop response plans to protect the health of Californians living within 3,200 feet of an existing oil well. Credit: flckr.com

Prince James Story |

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 1137, which seeks to safeguard frontline communities by increasing setbacks for oil and gas sites to 3,200 feet from residential homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and community centers. 

The bill will also require oil and gas facility operators in these protected areas to implement strict pollution controls and develop response plans to protect the health of Californians living within 3,200 feet of an existing oil well.

“This legislation marks a true turning point in California’s history and in our nation’s fight against climate change and decade’s worth of environmental injustices faced by our frontline communities. Our planet is warming, and that is simply an undeniable truth; but with bold actions like SB 1137, we can still catch up in the race to stop this crisis,” 

Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), who drafted the bill, said in a press release. “With the combined stress of global warming and proximity to oil and gas production wells, it is our frontline communities that carry the heaviest burden with their already increased risk of asthma, heart disease, and cancer. That is the reality and the severity of the public health challenges that pollution-burdened communities face daily across our state, and SB 1137 will help us change that.”

In 2019, 2,763,383 Californians lived within 3,200 feet of an operational oil and gas well communities of color in California account for 69% of the total. Children under 5 years of age account for 5.9% of the total, and Children under 18 years of age account for 21.4% of the total, according to data from Fractracker Alliance. 

Despite the bill’s supporters, on Sept. 19th, three days after Gov. Newsom signed the bill, Nielsen Merksamer, a lobbying firm representing the proponent Jerome Reedy, president of Rio Delta Resources and a board member of the California Independent Petroleum Association, filed a referendum to halt the bill. 

The referendum’s proponent has until Dec. 15 to compile 623,212 signatures from community members.

Massive Disparities

Some environmental justice organizations have spoken out against the referendum filing.

“Big oil is willing to spend millions of dollars and waste taxpayer money to overturn a law that isn’t in their favor. They will stop at nothing to buy the signatures needed to get what they want, including misleading voters to get the required number of signatures they need,” said Kobi Naseck, coalition coordinator for ​​Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods(VISION).  “Environmental justice communities and frontline communities are going to fight this … And it’s pretty plain to see that it’s big business versus the people of California.”

Sylvia Arredondo, the civic engagement coordinator for Communities For A Better Environment(CBECal), has lived in Wilmington her whole life with her home adjacent to pump jacks and breathing in polluted air. She has dealt with asthma, and she and her sister developed rosacea, an inflammatory skin condition. All three of her nieces also have asthma.

“Growing up, I’ve seen, you know, my peers who have gotten ill, some who have passed away because of living in close proximity to these oil industries and developing different cancers. Even women dealing with reproductive health issues,” Arredondo said. 

According to Let’s Get Healthy California, in 2019, nearly 1.5 million children in California had asthma. The data shows massive disparities in the race of children who visited emergency rooms because of their asthma. African American children were the most affected at 210 visits per 10,000 residents compared to 66.2 visits for Hispanic children and 37.2 visits for white children.

Emergency Department Visits Due to Asthma per 10,000 Children and Adolescents, by Demographic Category

(Source: Let’s Get Healthy California: Reducing Childhood Asthma letsgethealthy.ca.go)

“I think a lot of that comes to the oil industry, which has a grip on our community. The oil industry provides, you know, free school giveaways, they underwrite and support community events, supporting schools, and they’re really ingrained in our society like a good neighbor. But a good neighbor wouldn’t pollute our health. A good neighbor wouldn’t try to kick back some donations for our silence. A good neighbor would address these health harms, and they wouldn’t put our lives at risk,” Arredondo said.

Timeline of proposed referendum seeking to halt implementation of SB 1137

12/15/22: Last day to collect and signatures turned into the county. If petitions are submitted before the deadline, the County has eight working days to determine the number of signatures (so the dates below will all vary if that’s the case to adjust for the earlier timeline). 

12/28/22: The county determines the number of signatures collected and sends the total to the Secretary of State. 

1/4/23: The Secretary of State determines the validity of signatures collected and notifies counties.  

2/17/23: Last day for the county to determine the number of qualified voters and to transmit the certificate to the Secretary of State.

2/24/23: Secretary of State will determine if the petition has qualified or failed. The sampling test may lead to another validity test if the signature count is between 592,052 and 685,534.

4/10/23: The county’s last day to determine the number of qualified voters.

4/14/23: Secretary of State certifies whether the petition has been signed by the number of qualified voters required to declare the petition sufficient. 

If the referendum secures enough qualified signatures, it could result in SB 1137 being placed on hold until the general election in 2024.

Prince James Story

Report for America Corps member and Black Voice News Climate and Environmental Justice reporter, Prince James Story was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an intersectional journalist with experience covering news and sports across numerous mediums. Story aims to inform the public of social inequities and discriminatory practices while amplifying the voices of those in the communities harmed. Story earned his master’s degree in Sports Journalism from Arizona State University-Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He earned a B.A. in Mass Communication and a B.A. in African American studies from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Contact Prince James with tips, comments, or concerns at Princejames@blackvoicenews.com or via Twitter @PrinceJStory.