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State Fails to Protect Frontline Communities From Oil Drilling

Activists give Democratic Senators a wake-up call.

Activists gather at the home of Bob Hertzberg (CA-18) after he voted down AB345. Photo by Hannah Benet. They hold signs saying "FAIL: DO YOUR HOMEWORK BOB"
Activists gather at the home of Bob Hertzberg (CA-18) after he voted down AB345. (PHOTO: Hannah Benet.)

Three California Democratic State Senators received early morning wake-up calls Monday morning following their committee votes against AB345, the “setback bill,” which would require that California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) creates health and safety buffer zones between oil and gas operations and sensitive sites like homes, schools, and hospitals.

Three Democratic State Senators — Anna Caballero (D-12), Bob Hertzberg (D-18) and Ben Hueso (D-40) — made clear, in voting against the bill, that they do not stand with the frontline communities living near oil and gas extraction sites. In fact, they don’t want to hear these communities’ voices at all.

This Wednesday, after successfully passing through the State Assembly, AB 345 came up for a vote in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee. The hearing was fraught with technical difficulties and the comment period unfairly dominated by the oil and gas industry.

During the public comment portion of the hearing, hundreds of the bill’s supporters found themselves unable to call in and give public comment. Frontline community members waited for two hours to state their support for the bill but were never given the opportunity, and technical difficulties on the call-in line (set up to provide for a COVID-19 safe virtual hearing) left callers on the phone without a number in the queue. Not only did members of the opposition (including employees from Aera Energy, Chevron, and the fossil fuel industry) consistently speak out of turn, taking up time from the supporting side, opposition was given significantly more time than supporters were allowed to voice comments.

The committee voted 5–4 against the bill.

“The fact that dozens of Spanish speaking residents who are currently poisoned by the emissions coming out of 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 [the Senators] have endorsed, being unheard.” Nayamin Martinez, director of CCEJN and a member of the VISION coalition said in a statement released last Thursday.

The bill, introduced by Al Muratsuchi (D-66), was created and advocated for by frontline communities — The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), Voices in Solidarity Against Oil In Neighborhoods (VISION) Coalition, and United Domestic Workers (UDW), the Homecare Providers Union — and, according to a press release from CRPE, included support from over 270 environmental, racial justice, public health, and faith organizations.

Setbacks are widely supported, which may be why these senators felt the need to suppress public comment. Seventy-nine percent of Californians support setbacks, across urban and rural areas, in both oil and non-oil producing areas.

Living near oil production is deadly. It causes asthma, bloody noses, preterm pregnancies, cancer, and respiratory illnesses that make you more vulnerable to COVID complications. Nearly 5.5 million Californians live within one mile of oil drilling, the majority being Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Yet Democratic senators Robert Hertzberg (D-18) and Ben Hueso (D-40) voiced blatant opposition. Hertzberg went so far as to call out community members by name, condescendingly telling them to “do the homework” and Hueso called the bill “a waste of time.”

“I am tired of bills that just push people’s buttons, and just push people’s nerves, and so I say to Katie Valenzuela and Rubin Rodriguez, we are on the game.” Hertzberg said.

In a statement published on Twitter, Katie Valenzuela, the director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, called out Hertzberg’s inappropriate behavior, and demanded an apology for this disrespect and the “all too familiar technique of gaslighting women of color.” Hertzberg has privately conceded that his comments crossed the line, but has not issued a public apology.

A masked woman reads from a piece of paper and gives a speech into a microphone as protestors hold signs behind her.
Fatima Iqbal-Zubair speaks on the effects of oil drilling in South Los Angeles. (PHOTO: Hannah Benet.)

Monday morning, just a few days after the vote, a coalition of activists lead by Sunrise Movement, Food & Water Action, and CAYouthVsBigOil targeted these three democratic senators at their homes.

In Los Angeles, activists carried report card signs, and chanted things like “Do your homework, don’t you fail, visit Katie in Oildale.” (Katie Valenzuela asked in a statement that the Senator visits these frontline communities, such as Oildale, his policy affects.) The report cards graded Hertzberg an “F” on subjects like “Listening to Public Health Experts” and “Respecting Women.”

Activists also called Hertzberg out for taking nearly a quarter of a million dollars from the fossil fuel industry while running for office. (Especially after taking the “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge.”)

Protestors also gathered at the home of Ben Hueso in San Diego and at the office of Sen. Caballero.

“The fossil fuel industry has no regard for our community’s health, especially our Black, Indigenous, and brown and low-income communities and with Sen. Caballero’s vote, no, on this bill, it shows neither does she.” One activist said from the steps of Caballero’s office in Merced.

Three masekd people hold a yellow banner saying "No Drilling Where We Are Living"
Sunrise San Diego gathers outside Ben Hueso’s home at 6 AM after he called the bill a “waste of time” and a “publicity stunt.” (PHOTO: Ian Ware)

The bill, and the fight for setbacks, is far from dead. It passed for reevaluation and can be voted on again in committee. In the meantime, you can call Hertzberg, Hueso, and Caballero or post your comment directly to Twitter.