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California has set carbon-neutrality goals for 2045 in a move away from fossil fuels to combat global warming. Kern County, where oil and gas production is a key industry, is at the epicenter of this transition's push and pull. KVPR News' Joshua Yeager is tracking the developments in the changing energy landscape.

Why an oil industry’s signature-gathering effort is seen as misleading

California Oil Wells Ban Referendum
Jae C. Hong
FILE - A pump jack extracts oil at a drilling site next to homes June 9, 2021, in Signal Hill, Calif. Residents in several regions of California allege that they’ve been misled by signature gatherers over the last two months as a campaign, Stop the Energy Shutdown, pushed to gather enough signatures to get a referendum to overturn SB 1137 on the 2024 statewide ballot. SB 1137, a law passed to ban new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet (975 meters) of schools, homes and hospitals, was signed into law by California Gov. Newsom in September.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Jesus Alonso was walking into a Walmart in Oildale on a recent day when he saw a petitioner talking to an elderly couple. Before Alonso entered the store, the petitioner approached him: “Sign this on 3,200-foot setbacks,” the man reportedly said.

“From the get-go, it wasn’t clear if it was for a 3,200-foot setback or against a 3,200-foot setback,” Alonso said.

Alonso, who lives near an active oil field in Lamont, pressed the signature gatherer.

“A 3,200-foot setback won’t really do anything for the people,” the man told Alonso. “The only thing it will do is create a 10-dollar-a-gallon problem for drivers here in California.”

The setbacks, also known as buffer zones, are part of a new state law – Senate Bill 1137 – that would ban new oil and gas production within roughly half a mile of schools and neighborhoods. The law is intended to protect residents from pollution created by fossil fuel production.

But Some Kern County residents are questioning the oil industry’s recent effort to overturn the law through a referendum. Statewide, a number of reports have surfaced accusing signature-gatherers of misleading people with their petition. State officials say they are investigating the claims.

A Los Angeles man, for example, told the Associated Press that a petitioner said the referendum would ban neighborhood oil drilling. In fact, it would do the opposite – essentially allowing drillers to continue applying for new neighborhood well permits until the 2024 election.

Oil lobbyists argue the law will increase the state’s dependence on foreign oil and hurt local economies.

The California Independent Petroleum Association says it gathered nearly a million signatures opposing the law over two months. The number of signatures is about a third more than needed to land the referendum on the ballot in 2024, which would suspend the law for at least two years. The lobby spent roughly $20 million to gather those signatures, according to state filings.

“You’ve got a lot of folks in California who’ve seen high gas prices who have had that pain at that pump,” Hector Barajas, the trade group’s spokesman, told KVPR. “What they want is to have that choice to have that oil domestically produced, rather than imported from foreign countries.”

Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration has countered that setback laws in other states, such as Colorado, haven’t significantly impacted petroleum production.

In the meantime, the California Department of Conservation announced it is forging ahead with an emergency rule-making process to implement setbacks under SB 1137. The agency, however, clarified that it would comply with the law’s suspension if the state verifies the referendum process.

California Secretary of State spokesman Joe Kocurek confirmed the office is investigating multiple complaints that the signature-gathering effort included disinformation around the law. Substantiated complaints could be referred to Attorney General Rob Bonta or local prosecutors, he added.

Environmental justice groups and advocates argue if the referendum goes through, it would be a disaster for communities that bear the brunt of the state’s oil production – which often tend to be of lower income and Black and brown.

Cesar Aguirre, Kern County Director for the Central California Environmental Justice Network told KVPR the setbacks are just the type of protections that many communities living near oil drilling have sought.

Meanwhile, California’s oil industry is stepping up its advocacy efforts in other ways, too. Last month, a number of business organizations launched “My Job Depends on Oil,” mirroring the popular My Job Depends on Ag campaign and Facebook page.

The advocacy group’s website states, “By putting a human face on the entire supply chain, we hope the impact will be recognized by not just political leaders, but consumers as well.”

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.