At issue this week is AB 1167. This bill, by Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, closes a flaw in the state’s oil well operation system and is important for the health of many thousands of Californians.
After being approved by the state Assembly and Senate on September 13, Governor Gavin Newsom has yet to sign it. The bill already has been in his office for over a week and he still hasn’t done it. We don’t know if he will, or if he will succumb to pressure from oil industry interests.
What is it about
There are thousands of small wells, many of them in densely populated areas in Southern California, where the residents are mainly low-income Latino families.
Living near wells leads to respiratory problems such as asthma and adverse birth outcomes, as much or worse than living next to a freeway or being exposed to secondhand smoke every day.
The operation of these fields is temporary: after a few years, the well begins to empty of the oil that lay in the depths.
When that starts to happen, the original owners sell them to other, smaller companies. In a cycle, they pass from one hand to another, each time to smaller companies with fewer resources.
Finally, when there is nothing left to remove from the ground, the well must be cleaned and closed. It is an exhaustive and expensive process, which costs about $70,000 and must be handled by the last company that purchased the well.
But often, because this company failed to recover its investment and does not have enough money to clean the wells, it declares bankruptcy.
“There are not a few,” Linda Escalante, the legislative director for Southern California of the Policy Advocacy Center at NRDC or the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international organization with thousands, told me in an interview. of volunteers throughout the country: “it is about 32 percent of the total of these wells.”
Currently, the money initially allocated for this purpose by the corporation that built the wells is not even enough to cover 10% of that cost.
Consequently, it is the state that has to take care of it.
The community loses twice
AB 1167 is necessary. It will require those who purchase the wells to make a deposit as a bond fee for the true cost of the cleanup as a condition of the purchase. In a recent column in La Opinión I explained the content of the motion when it had not yet been approved in the Legislature. In the current situation, the community loses twice. The first time, when the wells in operation poison their lungs and those of their children. The second, when the state must pay millions of dollars with money from our taxes that would otherwise go, in part, to services for the population.
The struggle in Sacramento
Linda Escalante is also a commissioner with the California Coastal Commission and has worked for NRDC for 18 years. In the interview, the activist described a scene at the Legislature in Sacramento during the last week of sessions. “We were just two environmentalists, and there were more than twenty lobbyists from the oil industry. They were everywhere,” she said.
Those lobbyists referred to the companies that bought the rights to the wells before they are completely exhausted, Escalante said, as “mom and pop” businesses, that is, low-income family businesses. But it’s not true.
“No one who is poor buys an oil well,” she explained.
These lobbyists “went out in an attempt to try to kill AB 1167, after they had managed to kill two bills, 985 and 674 by Lena González.” (*)
“I’m concerned about this delay on the governor’s part in signing the law,” Escalante said, “about the fact that he didn’t take advantage of this week.”
Newsom has spoken against the oil companies, but there may be a difference between words and actions, because “here you have an opportunity to do something that will have an effect in a short time. It is something very important for the health of all Californians, especially those who live very close to those wells, which are mostly Latino.”
For now, we don’t know. Gavin Newsom may still issue his veto. If he does so, it would be a victory for polluters who profit from people’s ills.
A victory that they would achieve because they can invest millions in lobbying to kill laws like this.
AB 1167 is a simple and straightforward bill. It has common sense and does justice so that the most powerful companies in the world fulfill their obligations.
And although it is not the complete solution to the problem, which is the closure of all oil wells that operate near the population, it is a step forward. “It is a law of quite limited scope, and yet they went all out to try to kill her,” said Escalante.
The community faces powerful corporations, whose main concern is to profit for their shareholders, and which do not pay much attention to the damage they can cause.
The governor must put aside any pressure and as he has done several times this year, and demonstrate courage in his contribution to the benefit of our people.
Gavin Newsom must sign AB 1167.
(*) Escalante was referring to motion AB 985 by Assemblyman Joaquín Arámbula, to regularize credit systems for emissions reduction. And SB 674 by state senator Lena González, which would have strengthened the monitoring system to measure the concentration of toxic substances in the environment along the property lines of refineries.