Keep it in the ground: Indigenous leaders urge California to phase out Big Oil

  • Published on May 22nd, 2018

While the New York Times, Rolling Stone and other media often hail Governor Jerry Brown as a “climate hero,” the Brown administration has overseen a massive increase in offshore and onshore drilling in California, including the approval of 238 NEW offshore oil wells in state waters under existing leases off the Southern California coast.

Keep it in the Ground - indigenous peoples vs big Oil. by David SolnitBy Dan Bacher

Beneath California’s green veneer is a toxic Big Oil underbelly, demonstrated by the fact that California is the nation’s third biggest oil producer  and is home to huge oil refineries, including the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, that process crude oil drilled in the Amazon and elsewhere.

On Thursday morning in a big show of solidarity, Indigenous leaders from the Ecuadorian Amazon joined Idle No More SF Bay and other Bay Area allies at Chevron’s Richmond Refinery to call on California’s political leadership to phase out oil and gas production and processing in the state, including its importation of crude oil drilled in the Amazon rainforest, according to a news release from Amazon Watch.

Gloria Ushigua and Manari Ushigua, leaders of the Sapara people, drew attention to the impacts that the fossil fuel economy, including Chevron’s key role in causing destruction to people and planet.

“We are all fighting for our survival, to protect our little pieces of land,” said Gloria Ushigua Santi, Sapara Nation leader. “I have seen how destructive the fossil fuel industry is for California’s own communities. I don’t want our land to become polluted, like this land by the refinery.

“We call on California’s leadership to move quickly from an unsustainable reliance on a fossil fuel economy to a sustainable one based on renewable energy. Anything less puts the Sapara, the Amazon and other Amazonian indigenous peoples, California communities, and our entire global climate in danger,” said Ushigua Santi.

“The possibility of oil drilling in our territory – something the Ecuadorian government is pushing – could be the end of the Sapara people, and certainly an end to our strong connection with the forest,” said Manari Ushigua Santi, Sapara Nation. “After all, there are few of us, and we have seen the deforestation and cultural destruction already caused by oil drilling in other parts of the Amazon. Now that we know about the link between oil from the Amazon and California refineries, we know that the state government’s continued support of the oil industry also puts us and other peoples of the Amazon in danger.”

Chevron wields enormous political influence in the state, since it is one of the biggest contributors in the state to political campaigns every year. Chevron and the Western States Petroleum Association also regularly top the list of spenders on lobbying in Sacramento.

Big Oil dominated three out of the four top spots of expenditures by all lobbying organizations in 2017, according to documents from the California Secretary of State’s Office. Outspending all of its competition, Chevron placed first with $8.2 million, and the WSPA placed second $6.2 million. Tesoro Refining and Marketing Company finished fourth with $3.2 million. For more information, go to:…

In addition to Chevron’s toxic legacy in Ecuador, the Sapara leaders and allies from Communities for a Better Environment, Green Action, and Bay Area indigenous-led organization Idle No More SF Bay outlined how California’s oil and gas extraction and processing is harming communities from the Ecuadorian Amazon to Richmond, California.

“The Sapara Nation of the Ecuadorian Amazon is recognized by UNESCO as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ because their language and culture are in danger of disappearing,” according to Amazon Watch. “There are about 500 Sapara people still living in their ancestral home, a large territory that is a critical part of the Amazonian ecosystem. However, Sapara territory – and the Sapara themselves – are in serious danger from oil drilling planned for two oil blocks that overlap with approximately 500,000 acres of their ancestral territory.”

The group said Chevron refineries throughout California are the largest purchasers and processors of crude oil imported from the Amazon rainforest, as well as one of the state’s biggest overall polluters. A 2017 Amazon Watch report demonstrated that half of crude oil exports from the Western Amazon come to California, adding to the toxic impact of the California’s fossil fuel production and refining industry.

“Continued oil and gas extraction in California – both on land and offshore – and its imports of Amazon crude is a significant obstacle to doing what science says must be done to prevent the worst outcomes from climate change: keeping fossil fuels in the ground,” said Leila Salazar-López, Amazon Watch Executive Director.

Isabella Zizi, Idle No More SF Bay, said: “It’s important to be here today because it shows that the very resistance starts in our own backyards. It makes a direct connection to what is happening down in the Ecuadorian Amazon with our indigenous brothers and sisters and our relatives down there who are facing the same destruction and harms to their own people and that we can come together and unite and make change together and stand up to Big Oil.”

Andrés Soto, Communities for a Better Environment, said: “I’m here today representing Communities for a Better Environment with our ongoing solidarity with Amazon Watch and the advocacy that connects the extractive activities in Ecuador directly to the refining activities in Richmond and the commonalities of not only health impacts but also political corruption. We need to link our resistance because we’re dealing with transnational corporations and so we also need to have a transnational resistance.”

As a result of the millions that Big Oil has spent on campaign contributions and lobbying in recent years, both onshore and offshore drilling has expanded substantially in California under the Brown administration.

In February 2017, an analysis of Department of Conservation data by the Fracktracker Alliance revealed that Governor Jerry Brown’s oil and gas regulators approved 238 new offshore oil wells in state waters under existing leases off Los Angeles and Ventura counties from 2012 to 2016, an increase of 17 percent. Roughly 171 of them were still active as of a year ago.

In addition, the number of  active onshore oil and gas wells has jumped 23 percent from 53,825 in 2009, the year before Brown was elected Governor, to 66,516 onshore wells at the end of 2016, according to Department of Conservation data.

The number of wells drilled and completed in 2014 alone jumped by 67 percent over 2011 to 6,896 from 4,636 on Governor Brown’s watch. The FracTacker Alliance report is available here:

More recently, state records obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity under the California Public Records Act revealed that corporations drilling for oil and gas off the southern coast of California have violated state regulations at least 381 times since 2015.

“The violations range from major corrosion and other serious safety threats on offshore drilling platforms to a pattern of missing and failed well-integrity tests on four offshore drilling islands owned by the city of Long Beach,” the Center said.

While California officials tout themselves as leaders in “marine protection” and addressing climate change, the reality in the state’s coastal waters, as well as onshore in Kern County, Los Angeles County and elsewhere, is one of fossil fuel extraction expansion and significant violations of environmental laws by the fossil fuel industry.

Take Action – Tell Governor Jerry Brown to commit to no new fossil fuels in California:…

(Photo by Dan Solnit)

About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.