Greg Gjerdingen | Wikimedia Commons

By Steve Horn

Top photo: Greg Gjerdingen | Wikimedia Commons

Nalleli Cobo was a teenager when her family decided to uproot themselves and leave their home near the University of Southern California.

Living in close proximity to a prestigious university, on its surface, may sound idyllic. But Cobo’s situation was different. Her family lived only 30 feet from an oil production facility owned by the company Allenco Energy, and it made them sick.

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“I was always a really healthy girl, then out of nowhere I started getting really sick,” Cobo told The Real News. “Heart palpitations, body spasms, severe nosebleeds, asthma, headaches, and more. And it wasn’t just me experiencing these problems. It was most of my community, as well.”

Cobo’s mother also developed asthma at 40 years old, while her grandma developed it at age 70, rare and rarer still at those respective ages.

There are many families like Cobo’s with health issues tied to oil drilling in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. According to a 2017 study published by the Center for Biological Diversity, oil drilling in California has been linked with increased risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, premature births and low-weight babies, and even cancer, due to the toxic chemicals used during the drilling process.

Nearly 5.5 million Californians live within a mile of an oil well; the state ranks fourth in oil production in the country. Los Angeles County had 5,194 operational oil wells as of 2015, and as of 2017 over 80 percent of them sat within 2500 feet of a home, school, or hospital.

Over 325,000 people in Los Angeles live within 2500 feet of an oil well, which is inside of the quarter-mile distance most scientists say could lead to severe health issues. Another 2017 study published by researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) further concluded that environmental justice issues exist in where oil wells sit within Los Angeles, impacting communities with people of color the most acutely.

Not everybody can just move elsewhere if they find themselves inside that toxic zone.

“Moving isn’t the solution because these wells shouldn’t be there in the first place and people don’t have the financial stability to pack up and move,” said Cobo. “And even if they did, another family would move in and then they would be exposed to the toxic emissions.”

The premise laid out by Cobo and in the UCLA study is a reality acknowledged in AB 345, legislation proposed during the 2019 California Legislature by Al Muratsuchi (D-Los Angeles), who represents the South Bay portion of the city along the Pacific Ocean. The bill calls for a 2500 foot setback between residences and any new oil industry operations.

“AB 345 will mandate a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer zone between new oil and gas wells and sensitive land uses, which include schools, day care centers, residential homes, and hospitals, thereby creating a safe distance between drilling operations and vulnerable populations in order to avoid serious public health and safety risks and impacts,” Maratsuchi told The Real News. “Oil and gas extraction produces air toxics, including volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde, fine and ultra-fine particulate matter, and hydrogen sulfide. Other risks include water contamination, toxic chemicals spills, and explosions.”

AB 345 has the support of organizations ranging from 350 South Bay Los Angeles, California Environmental Justice Alliance, Californians Against Fracking, Consumer Watchdog, Greenpeace, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment and Sunrise Movement Bay Area, among others.

“I think, part of the importance of the bill is that it’s not just so much about a single well being placed in your community,” said Alvaro Casanova, a Senior Policy Advocate for the Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment. “That well and the construction that comes with it and the maintenance of that well all have impacts on the air quality ranging from the particulate matter that comes from the diesel trucks, the hazardous chemicals that go through the communities as they’re being transported to clean the well and maintain the well. And so, over time there’s a lot of air impacts and water impacts in communities.”

Much of the oil drilling in California, added Casanova, takes place in densely packed oil fields with dozens upon dozens of oil rigs.

“And so if you look at Kern County and Los Angeles County, there are thousands of wells that are placed in highly urbanized areas that bring all of these impacts,” Casanova further explained. “So, it’s not just how close they are, but the density of these wells in particular.”

Yet even with a groundswell of support, AB 345 has died in 2019. And whether or not it will pass in 2020 remains unclear.

The bill has come under fierce opposition from both the oil industry and segments of the labor movement and was eventually shelved by Assembly Appropriations Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who has a labor leadership background and has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from both oil industry and labor unions who oppose AB 345.

Labor, Industry Opposition

AB 345 did make some progress in the California Assembly, even passing in the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources on April 22.

It was then pulled from the docket for the 2019 session just weeks later on May 16 by Gonzalez, who also chairs the Assembly Latino Caucus. Gonzalez placed it as a two-year bill, meaning it can be reconsidered again in January 2020. She said that bill, along with a group of others, can potentially be retooled with Appropriations Committee staffers for a 2020 session revival.

“This year because there are so many bills, mahy that were extremely good bills or had extremely good ideas, but necessitated a number of amendments or late amendments in order to make them workable or affordable or that there were just some open issues that didn’t allow us to move it forward, we have made those into two year bills,” Gonzalez, who prior to serving in the Assembly worked as CEO of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO, said at the May 16 Appropriations Committee hearing.

“I want people to know they’re welcome to continue to work on those bills with our committee staff after session is over in September,” she continued.

What Gonzalez did not say when she took the bill off the table for 2019 was that, in her time spent as a member of the California Assembly since 2013, she has received large amounts of campaign contributions from the oil industry and labor unions who have also lobbied or advocated against AB 345.

According to state campaign finance data, Gonzalez has received campaign money throughout her career from the likes of Tesoro ($13,000) ExxonMobil ($3,500) CA Independent Petroleum Association ($7,000), Chevron ($11,300), CA Building Industry Association ($10,300), and State Building and Construction Trades Council of California PAC ($34,300).

Gonzalez did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

AB 345 faced legislature registered opposition from major unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the California State Council of Laborers and the State Building And Construction Trades Council of California. It also faced lobbying opposition from powerful oil industry companies and lobbying organs  like the Western States Petroleum Association and the California Independent Petroleum Association. ExxonMobil, the Western States Petroleum Association, California Independent Petroleum Association, and the California Building Industry Association, according to disclosure forms reviewed by The Real News.

The bill’s two-year status has engendered reactions from both advocates of the bill, as well as opponents of it.

One of those takes came from Ingrid Brostrom, Assistant Director of the Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment, who said she sees AB 345’s two-year bill status—and not just killing it outright—as a beacon of hope.

“These were bills she thought were important policies and good policies, but she wanted to spend more time with her staff on working up amendments,” said Brostrom. “I was actually quite encouraged with what happened there because everyone was telling us, given the labor opposition and Lorena Gonzalez as a big labor supporter and leader, that there was no way that we’d be able to get her support. And so the fact that she selected this bill and the fact that it didn’t die and it certainly could have, to me was actually quite positive.”

The Appropriations Committee bill analysis for AB 345 said the state could lose up to $3.5 billion in revenue if the bill became law. It also stated that California could lose “potentially in the range of one hundred million dollars from corporate taxes, employee income taxes and sales and use taxes.”

In citing the $3.5 billion figure, the California Independent Petroleum Association celebrated the bill’s failure to pass in 2019.

“The Legislature’s own economic analysis found this bill would cost the state up to $3.5 billion and would expose the state to significant litigation costs on an annual basis,” Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, said in a statement provided to The Real News. “A half-mile setback has no basis in science – it’s simply an end run to ban production in California. This would hurt our economy, kill thousands of jobs, and would not strengthen California’s toughest-on-the-planet oil and gas regulations.”

But Brian Nowicki, California Climate Policy Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, takes umbrage with the $3.5 billion figure.

“I strongly disagree with their analysis.  For example, the cost was based on the assumption that all oil production currently within the half-mile buffer would be discontinued, despite the fact that the bill applies only to future permits,” said Nowicki. “Also, some oil reserves may be accessible through horizontal drilling from outside the setback zone. Finally, this assumes maximal production of oil from the existing wells, which is unlikely to be the case even in the absence of AB 345.”

Common Ground California

Opponents of AB 345 also created a potent, and ultimately successful, ground game to oppose the bill. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Committee on Natural Resources hearing for AB 345 held on April 22.

At that meeting, oil workers from across the state came via bus to speak against the bill, packing the hearing room and wearing green shirts on Earth Day. Those matched the green shirts worn by many of the bill’s proponents. They testified, one after another for nearly 30 minutes, mostly by quickly stating their job titles and opposition to the bill.

Further, just weeks before AB 345 went before the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, Western States Petroleum Association and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California launched a partnership known as Common Ground California.

On Twitter, the group says it is “paid for by the California Labor and Oil Management Alliance.”

On April 2, the California Labor Oil Management Alliance registered as a corporation through attorney Steven Lucas, according to documents reviewed by The Real News. Lucas works at the lobbying and law firm Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni, whose clients include Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP America, ConocoPhillips and Western States Petroleum Association.

Image Credit: Office of California Secretary of State
Image Credit: Office of California Secretary of State

Additional corporate documents for the Alliance show that Catherine Reheis-Boyd is listed as the CEO of the organization, while Shant Apekian is listed as the CFO. Reheis-Boyd works as President of the Western States Petroleum Association, while Apekian works as a senior lobbyist for the group. J. Tom Baca, listed as the Alliance’s Secretary, works as the International Vice President for the Western States Section of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.

Western States Petroleum Association denied a request for comment for this story.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), who represents southeast Los Angeles County and serves as the Chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Climate Change Policies, voted in favor of AB 345 in the Committee on Natural Resources. She said opponents of the bill like Common Ground California crafted a “misinformation lobby” campaign which ultimately led to its demise for the 2019 session.

“When I’ve heard the opposition and my peers talk about it, they keep saying current [oil operations will be impacted],” said Garcia. “While I do think there’s a problem with current facilities that are up and running, this bill was looking forward and saying, ‘How do we do things better in the future? How do we ensure that we don’t keep compounding the bad things that are happening in our community and adding to the layers of how they get treated like a wasteland?’”

Garcia also expressed hopes that the bill could pass in 2020.

“I hope it comes back, I hope the discussion continues,” Garcia continued. “There are community members out there that are literally just literally five miles from my community that deserve justice and who expect this discussion to continue.”

For her part, Cobo said she supports AB 345 and is now working with the group STAND-LA (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling) to advocate for its passage.

“I think this bill should’ve been implemented a long time ago, but due to the lack of education regarding the matter, change wasn’t being made,” said Cobo. “And now with our efforts, blood, sweat, and tears, change is around the corner. While I wish it was implemented while I lived near a well, the important thing now is that hopefully it will soon be protecting future generations.”

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Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.