A California law banning the installation of new oil and gas wells near homes, schools, and other community facilities has been put on hold as voters will get a chance to vote on the measure through a referendum next year.
California Secretary of State Shirley Weber announced Friday that opponents of Senate Bill 1137 gathered more than 623,000 valid voter signatures and met the threshold to put the measure on the ballot as a referendum for next year's general election on November 5, 2024. Voters will then weigh in on whether to approve or reject the measure.
The bill prohibits new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of schools, homes, daycare and healthcare centers, parks, jails, and any building with businesses open to the public. It was signed into law in September 2022 and took effect in January 2023 before being put on hold following the effort to put it on the ballot as a referendum.
Heated referendum battle looms
Californians will weigh in on what will likely be a contentious debate between energy and environmental interests over the referendum.
The referendum push was put in motion by the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), which has opposed other state and local measures to restrict oil and gas drilling including those advanced by Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles.
"The Stop the Energy Shutdown petition, backed by nearly a million Californians, qualified in record time and will give voters a say on a measure that was rushed through last minute with little review and no scientific backing," CIPA CEO Rock Zierman said in a statement. "Senate Bill 1137 threatens the livelihood of over 50,000 hardworking Californians and forces the state to rely on more expensive, imported foreign oil that is completely exempt from California's strict environmental laws."
CIPA wrote in a press release announcing the referendum push: "The law threatens to further increase California's already high gas prices by decreasing in-state energy supplies and replacing those barrels with expensive imported foreign oil that contributes to greater Greenhouse Gas emissions. Before SB 1137's passage, existing state and local laws already required various setback distances from oil wells established by thoughtful scientific review."
Democrats and environmental justice advocates have touted SB 1137 as a way to combat air pollution in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, and have urged opposition to the referendum push.
"It’s one thing for Big Oil to make record profits as they rip off Californians at the pump. It’s quite another to push to continue harmful drilling near daycares and schools and our homes," Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement bashing the ballot measure.
"Greedy oil companies know that drilling results in more kids getting asthma, more children born with birth defects, and more communities exposed to toxic, dangerous chemicals – but they would rather put our health at risk than sacrifice a single cent of their billions in profits," Newsom added.
Sierra Club of California Director Brandon Dawson said in a press release: "This referendum effort has nothing to do with lowering gas prices, as the oil and gas companies have claimed. This is a naked attempt by polluters to eschew their accountability for poisoning California’s most vulnerable communities. These communities – primarily black and brown and low income neighborhoods – already bear the greatest brunt of climate change impacts, and repealing SB 1137 will put them at even greater risk."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.