The Epic Battle Between Big Oil and the People of California
On Thirteenth Street in front of the Sacramento Convention Center where the Democratic Convention was being held on May 20, a group of activists held a mock “tug of war’” between the people of California and the oil industry for the loyalty of Governor Jerry Brown.
By Dan Bacher
On the left, people pulled an activist wearing a giant papier mache Jerry Brown “head” towards them with the rope. Then others representing oil industry executives, dressed in white shirts and gray ties right next to a big oil barrel emblazoned with “Big Oil $,” tugged “Jerry Brown” in their direction. The “tug of war” took place for around 20 minutes, with neither side winning.
The skit depicted the contradiction between Jerry Brown the “climate leader,” who appeals to his Democratic base by preaching against climate change and for green energy, and the other guy, “Big Oil Brown,” who supports the expansion of fracking in California and the construction of the Delta Tunnels — and has received millions in contributions from the oil and energy industries.
Jerry Brown himself wasn’t there. He was out of town at a family reunion as the tumultuous convention proceeded in Sacramento.
David Braun of the Rootskeeper and Californians Against Fracking blasted Brown or taking nearly $10 million from the oil and energy industry in recent years, as revealed in a report published by Consumer Watchdog last year.
“This is the guy that was the Bernie Sanders of the ’90s,” Braun told the crowd at the rally before the march to convention center, referring to Brown’s maverick presidential run against Bill Clinton in 1992, when he vowed not to take contributions of more than $100. “That guy’s long gone, but we need him back. Jerry Brown, we need you!”
But the tug of war was over more than just over the loyalty of Jerry Brown, torn between the people and the oil industry. It was, on a deeper level, about California’s contradictory role as an “environmental leader” with some good laws, on one hand, and then its role as the nation’s third biggest oil producer, with some of the dirtiest and fouled air and waterways in the country, on the other hand.
“In California, for all of the progress made, we have enormous problems that aren’t be addressed by the elected leaders to date,” said Adam Scow, California Director of Food and Water Watch. “It is an embarrassment that Maryland and New York have banned fracking, but California has not. We need our elected officials to enact a real progressive agenda banning fracking & fossil fuels. Anything less is unacceptable.”
Hundreds of activists, including around 50 Democratic Party delegates, carrying colorful signs and banners, participated in the historic “Oil Money Out, People Power In” march and rally in Sacramento, on May 20. They demanded that politicians stop taking money from the oil industry, the largest and most powerful corporate lobby in Sacramento.
The event began with a rally at the Governor’s Mansion at noon, and then around 2:15 pm. people marched to the convention center.
For Nalleli Cobo, the impact of fossil fuel is very personal. From the time she was 9-years-old, she suffered from heart palpitations, asthma, body spasms, headaches stomach pains and dizziness.
Now 16, she lives in South Los Angeles, right across the street from where the Allenco Oil Corporation, with a total of 21 wells, was conducting acidizing operations, an extremely dirty and toxic method of oil extraction.
“Doctors, including gastroenterologists and neurologists, couldn’t find anything wrong with me,” said Cobo. “However, a toxicologist came to my community and made the connection that it was the acidizing that was causing my illness. Once they shout down Allenco, all of the symptoms except for the asthma went away.”
After a big effort by the community members involving then-Senator Barbara Boxer, the acidizing operation was shut down on November 22, 2013.
Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, opened the rally with a prayer and the keynote talk. She drew the connections between the Delta Tunnels that Governor Brown is promoting, the proposed federal raise of Shasta Dam and the expansion of fracking operations in California that need water to frack — and then in turn dump toxic waste in unlined pits to leak back into the aquifers and pollute them.
“Water is sacred,” she emphasized. “Water is life. We can all live without oil, but try going for four days without water and see what happens. Then you get back to understanding how important water is in our future.”
”We will never have enough water to quench the thirst of Big Oil,” said Chief Sisk. “I believe that Big Oil wants a direct line to their fracking operations.”
She said the water contractors and government want to make us believe these water projects are to “provide water for the people,” but they are actually designed to provide public water to Big Oil, fracking and agribusiness operations in the state, the 7th largest economy in the world.
Graywolf of the American Indian Movement, Southern California, brought up the importance of the Standing Rock struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to those fighting Big Oil money in California and across the nation and world,
“Standing Rock is everywhere,” he said. “We need to be everywhere fighting pipelines. It’s not just an indigenous issue. It’s everybody’s issue because everybody needs water to live.”
At the march and rally, RL Miller, chair of the Democratic Environmental Caucus, displayed the giant pledge card not to take over $200 from Big Oil, signed by a multitude of political leaders, including Senate President Pro Tem Kevin Leon, State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and gubernatorial candidate Delaine Eastin. “We will take this pledge to every legislator in the state,” she vowed.
PhD Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, pointed out that the crude oil that continues to be drilled out of the bedrock of California is matched only by the “gusher of money from the oil industry flowing into Sacramento.”
“The result is dangerous drilling practices in urban areas that poison the air that children breathe, unlined pits full of fracking waste that threaten the water that all Californians drink, and the unregulated use of drilling wastewater to irrigate crops that all Americans eat,” said Steingrabber who also served as Science Advisor for Americans Against Fracking and was instrumental in stopping fracking in her home state of New York. “We have good data on all these public health harms. But taking action on the evidence requires shutting off the flow of cash from Big Oil to the governor’s mansion and to the statehouse.” .
San Benito County Supervisor Robert Rivas discussed how residents of a lightly populated rural county in Central California, through a highly energized grassroots campaign, defeated Big Oil’s millions by voting to ban fracking and other extreme oil drilling techniques.
“After realizing what the severe environmental and health consequences from oil drilling could mean for San Benito County, our residents voted to ban fracking and similar drilling techniques,” said Rivas. “The oil industry spent over $2 million to defeat our residents. It’s wrong that they are able to spend millions and millions to undermine our democracy. I will never accept oil company contributions and I urge all elected officials to do the same.”
As Big Oil was attempting to buy off legislators and sway public opinion in favor of fracking, the state of California ordered independent studies on the toxicity of oil operations and scientists made “strong and clear recommendations to protect public health,” noted Braun. Unfortunately, the recommendations of these studies have not been implemented yet by a state government that portrays itself as the nation’s “green leader.”
“We have state-sponsored science that demonstrates health impacts of people living in close proximity to oil and gas operations,” said Braun. “Meanwhile, a full two years after a tax-payer-funded study was released and recommendations were made, none of these protections have been put in place, leaving the general population vulnerable to known toxic exposure. “
“What’s happening is California is nothing short of criminal,” noted Braun.
Other speakers at the march and rally included Lydia Ponce, (Southern California AIM), Michael Green, (Center for Environmental Heath); Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (Earth Guardians); Jose Bravo (Just Transition Alliance); and Jovanka Beckles (Richmond City Council).
Food and Water Watch, the California Nurses Association, Greenpeace, 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Rootskeeper, Center for Biological Diversity, Davis Stand and many other statewide and national environmental and health groups sponsored the rally.
While California has the reputation of being the nation’s “green leader,” Big Oil and other corporate interests in fact exert enormous political influence over the Governor’s Office, the State Legislature and the state and federal regulatory agencies.
During the 2015-2016 Legislative Session, the oil industry spent a historic $36.1 million to lobby California lawmakers and officials. During the last 6 years, the industry has spent $122 million in Sacramento, more than any other interest group.
The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the most powerful corporate lobbying organization in California, was the top overall oil industry spender during the 2015-16 session, spending $18.7 million. Chevron, the second overall oil industry spender, spent $7 million in the 2015-16 session.
Most recently, WSPA spent $1,387,601.97 from January 1 to March 31, 2017, for “general lobbying,” according to documents filed with the California Secretary of State. (cal-access.sos.ca.gov/…)
WSPA and Big Oil use their money and power in 5 ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) getting appointed to positions on and influencing regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: and (5) working in collaboration with media.