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Adelita Serena of Mothers Out Front stands up for health and safety buffers around oil and wells at a rally at the State Capitol this year before Governor Newsom's State of the State. (Photo by Dan Bacher)

Adelita Serena of Mothers Out Front stands up for health and safety buffers around oil and wells at a rally at the State Capitol this year before Governor Newsom's State of the State. (Photo by Dan Bacher)

Senate Committee Votes Against Bill to Create Health and Safety Zones Around Oil Wells 

California, a state that politicians and the mainstream media constantly tout as “green” and “progressive,” still doesn't have health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells like Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Dakota and other oil and gas producing states do.

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water recently voted 4-5 against AB 345 (Muratsuchi), a bill that would help to create health and safety buffer zones for the nearly 1.8 million Californians who currently reside in highly polluted areas close to oil and gas wells across the state.

Five Committee Members voted against the bill — even though the language of the bill was amended significantly from the the original bill introduced last year.

As amended, AB 345 would require the establishment of an environmental justice program at the California Natural Resources Agency, and require the Geologic Energy Management Division of the Department of Conservation to adopt regulations to “protect public health and safety near oil and gas extraction facilities.”

The amended bill says the Department shall “consider a setback distance of 2,500 feet from schools, playgrounds, and public facilities where children are present,” but doesn’t require this as the original bill introduced last year did. 

The Committee voted to allow reconsideration before adjourning. ”The author and sponsors are currently working with the committee on potential amendments to the bill to be considered at the August 12 hearing,” according to a press statement from California Environmental Justice Alliance and VISION coalition.” 

“Despite the fact that over 270 environmental, labor, racial justice, public health, and faith organizations—as well as 79% of Californians, according to a recent poll—support the creation of a health and safety buffer zones between communities and oil extraction, today’s vote could leave the creation of an oil and gas buffer zone up to the discretion of the Newsom Administration’s rulemaking process,” the groups stated.

They also pointed out that one hundred advocates and community members in support of AB 345 “were unable to provide testimony after opponents from the oil and gas industry tied up lines reserved for supporters of the bill.” 

Calls from Chevron, Seneca Resources, and Aera Energy employees in opposition to the bill flooded the phone system used for public comments. As a veteran reporter, even I was shocked at how brazen the oil industry and their backers were in trying to hijack the hearing.

Calls from Chevron, Seneca Resources, and Aera Energy employees in opposition to the bill flooded the phone system used for public comments. As a veteran reporter, even I was shocked at how brazen the oil industry and their backers were in trying to hijack the hearing.

“Senator Hertzberg testified at length about what he considered to be dubious intentions of supporting organizations, claiming that AB 345 was nothing more than a ‘publicity stunt,’” the groups said.

Senator Stern, Senator Monning, Senator Jackson, and Senator Allen voted in support of AB 345, while Senator Hertzberg, Senator Hueso and Senator Caballero joined Republicans to oppose the bill, 

Senators opposing the bill are the recipients of thousands of dollars of oil and gas money, according to followthemoney.org and VoteSmart. Senator Bob Hertzberg received $26,800 in contributions from the oil and gas industry during the 2018 election cycle, in addition to $26,860 from the automotive industry and $20,000 from the air transport industry.

Senator Ben Hueso received $20,600 from oil and gas corporations, including $ 4,500 from the Tesoro Corporation and $5,000 from Philips 66.

Senator Anna Caballero received $15,000 from the oil and gas industry. This includes $5,000 from Chevron, $3250 from the California Independent Oil Marketer Association, $2000 from Exxon Mobil, $1500 from BP North America, $1099 from Sam Eastman, $1000 from Conoco Phillips, $1000 from 711, #250 from Sturdy Oil Company and $250 from Laura Sanborn. More information: www.google.com/…

Representatives of the groups spoke out against their treatment at the hearing by bill opponents yesterday.

“The fact that dozens of Spanish speaking residents who are currently poisoned by the fugitive emissions coming out of oil wells near their homes and schools were denied the opportunity to express their support for AB345 during yesterday’s hearing is just another example of the environmental racism that they have endured, being unheard,” said Nayamin Martinez, Director of CCEJN and a member of the VISION coalition. “It is time for Sacramento legislators to open the phone lines but more importantly open their ears and their minds to establish the 2,500 ft setbacks that EJ communities need to protect their health.” 

Senators backing AB 345 included Senator Henry Stern (D-27), committee chair, who voiced his support for the bill as an urgent priority given the health and safety of essential workers living through the severity of the economic and public health crisis that all Californians are facing. 

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Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-19) countered opposition talking points by stating that if the bill didn’t do anything meaningful - as the opposition claimed - she wouldn’t think there would be so much attention from stakeholders. She also pointed to the important role the Legislature should play in helping guide Administration activities like the proposed rulemaking. 

Assemblymember Al Muratsutchi (D-66) also underlined the importance of protecting essential workers, low-income communities, and BIPOC communities, stating that AB 345 is a direct response to the systemic racism that allowed oil companies to drill in these communities in the first place. 

“Although we are disappointed by yesterday's vote, UDW members remain committed to providing relief to low income communities and communities of color who are disproportionately burdened by oil and gas extraction,” said Doug Moore, Executive Director of United Domestic Workers of America (UDW/AFSCME 3930), who announced their co-sponsorship of the bill the day before the hearing. “As a union that is by majority women and people of color, we know that the fight for environmental justice is a fight for our families and our futures. We look forward to working with our AB 345 coalition partners to push for an oil and gas extraction siting process that treats all Californians as equals.” 

Bill supporters said they will bring AB 345 for reconsideration at the August 12 hearing, emphasizing the “urgent need” for the Legislature to recommend a health and safety buffer zone for residents’ health in an ongoing pandemic. 

“The fight for setbacks is far from over,” said Ingrid Brostrom, Assistant Director, Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment. “California already lags behind the many other oil-producing states that have adopted setbacks, and is only falling further behind as states are increasing setback distances based on an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrating the serious health risks associated with oil and gas drilling. California prides itself on its leadership on issues of public health and the environment. However, if the legislature does not pass AB 345 this year, we must surely relinquish that claim.”

“Frontline residents, advocates, the scientific community, and public health experts are all calling for Senators Hueso, Hertzberg, and Caballero to rise to the moment by creating common-sense health and safety buffer zones to protect the health of all Californians,” said Katie Valenzuela, CEJA Action Political and Policy Director. “While the opposition is trying to paint AB 345 as an unnecessary legislative gesture, there is currently no binding commitment from the Newsom Administration to create any kind of health and safety buffer zone. Protecting the well-being of low-income, Black, and brown community members with a legislatively-mandated setback is the kind of emergency action that California needs to counter the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis.” 

During her testimony at the hearing yesterday, Valenzuela strongly urged the Committee to approve AB 345: “We implore you to listen to science, to put the lives of people like my family ahead of profit. As a resident of Oildale, CA, I was sent to the hospital too many times." 

After the hearing, Valenzuela also issued a separate statement regarding Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg’s verbal attack against her at the hearing yesterday:

“Yesterday during a legislative hearing of the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water held on the Senate floor, I was verbally attacked by Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg. I was there in person to testify as a primary support witness for Assembly Bill 345 authored by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, which aims to create health and safety buffer zones between communities and oil extraction sites, on behalf of the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) Action and over 100 other groups.

As is well-known in the Capitol building, the Senate floor is regarded as a hallowed place where members refrain from referring to one another by name in accordance with decorum and out of respect for each other. It was therefore shocking when, during the committee discussion, Senator Hertzberg aimed his comments in opposition personally at me. After I testified and resumed my seat in the gallery, Senator Hertzberg looked up at me from the Senate floor as he prepared to speak. He then proceeded to address his adversarial comments to me by name, repeating “Katie Valenzuela” angrily and pointedly as the focus of his comments several times as he spoke. He accused me of misleading community groups about the bill, and of failing to “do the homework” or “read the bill.” Senator Hertzberg’s rhetorical support for the spirit of the bill was an all-too-familiar gaslighting tactic commonly directed at women and advocates of color.

The Senate Majority Leader’s energy and language directed at me in speaking against the bill were patronizing, belittling, and intimidating. He insulted my intelligence, my intentions, and my integrity. In doing so, he also insulted the broad coalition of nonprofit advocacy and community groups who have worked tirelessly to pass AB 345 into law.

Senator Hertzberg condescended, demeaned community expertise, and used language that is all too reminiscent of the disregard and devaluing of lives of people of color that perpetuates environmental injustices. His blatant act of bullying me on the Senate floor went undeterred during a legislative hearing that was being broadcast live across the internet, including the more than 400 people who had called in to voice support or opposition.

And while I adhered to decorum and did not rise to defend myself, I am speaking up because every advocate and resident watching that hearing should know that what they witnessed was unacceptable, extraordinary, and should not have been tolerated.

I am calling on Senator Hertzberg to publicly apologize for his behavior. Further, since the Senator called on all of us to “do the homework,” I invite the Majority Leader to join me on a tour of oil fields in Kern County - where I grew up - at his earliest convenience.”

I have requested a response from Senator Hertzberg’s Office regarding Valenzuela’s statement.

[dc]“T[/dc]hanks for reaching out. We do not have a statement yet, but I'll be sure to let you know when we do,” wrote Cindy Baker, Communications Director, Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, in an email.

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When I receive a response from Hertzberg’s Office, I will report it.

Dan Bacher