How big oil dominates the public discourse to manipulate and deceive
For the past decade, California has been portrayed as the nation’s “green leader.” This myth has been promulgated by the Governor’s Office, state leaders, regulatory agencies, compliant media and most importantly, by the powerful oil industry itself. Yet, in spite of the grandstanding of California officials at international climate conferences, California seriously falls short on many of its environmental policies,
By Dan Bacher
On Earth Day 2019, fifteen activists from the Extinction Rebellion carrying brightly colored signs and banners gathered at 12th and L Streets in in front of the State Capitol in Sacramento and then marched at 10:30 a.m. to the looming offices of the powerful Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), located at 14th & L Streets.
For over an hour, they protested against the oil industry’s grip on California and U.S. politics both in front and back of the building, including blocking the back door of the offices of WSPA, the most powerful corporate lobbying group in California and the West.
Imani Davis of Sacramento, who held a sign stating, “No More Oil” in front of the office, said, “I believe in legislation and I believe in the Green New Deal, but to push this to actually happen, we have to put our bodies on the line.”
The Extinction Rebellion has three demands: “#1 Tell the Truth, #2 Act Now, and #3 Beyond Politics.” The action was held as part of an international series of actions in at least 80 cities and 33 countries. https://www.facebook.com/ExtinctionRebellion/
The activists who marched on WSPA released the following statement:
“The biggest emergency that we have in the world at this time is our climate. Sacramento is 30′ above sea level. We will have climate refugees in Sacramento when the polar ice is gone by 2023. That is what the latest science is saying, not 2050, as many people believe.
“The foothills are burning and you Sacramento, the Capitol of California, will be underwater. We need California to be a leader in the climate action, we need to get off fossil fuels by 2025 and carbon zero, by 2025. In fact, 2020 is a better target date for legislation to start, so we have a clear 2020 vision of what we as citizens, can expect , in the very near future.
”It will be hard, it will be uncomfortable, but we need to have conversations with our friends, family, and strangers on the street. Heartfelt real conversations. We are the reluctant activists who would much rather be sipping wine and sailing around the world or simply watching a baseball game, but if not us then who, and if not now, then when?”
Then at 2:30 p.m. Imani and others went to the State Capitol, Room 447, to a hearing at the Natural Resources Committee urging the California Legislature to support a bill, AB 345, to establish a 2500 foot health and safety zone (setback) between oil drilling and sensitive sites like homes, schools, and playgrounds. Buoyed by a big turnout of environmental justice advocates, the bill passed through the committee.
AB 345 (Health and Safety Zones), passed out of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee by a 7-3-1, with Committee members Al Muratsuchi, Laura Friedman, Monique Limon, Ed Chau, Kevin McCarty, Cristina Garcia, MarkStone casting the “aye” votes. Assembly member Susan Eggman abstained and Davon Mathis, Heath Flora, and Melissa Melendez voted “no.”
The Green California Myth:
There’s no doubt that California has a number of good environmental laws, ranging from the California Endangered Species Act to the California Environmental Quality Act. The state government has for years promoted the promotion of electric vehicles, solar energy and other renewable energy.
Unlike California, Texas has setbacks from fracking operations, with a 1500 foot setback in Dallas, Texas, and 250 feet throughout the rest of the state. Although a 250 feet setback is insufficient to protect human health and the environment, it is better than the current case in California, which has no setbacks from oil and gas drilling operations, none whatsoever.
Here are three other examples of where California falls short:
1. Expansion of Offshore and Offshore Drilling: A review of state permitting records in the report “The Sky’s The Limit: California,” shows that more than 21,000 drilling permits, including permits for 12,000 new wells, were issued during the Brown administration. These wells include 238 new offshore wells approved between 2012 and 2016 alone, according to Department of Conservation data analyzed by the Fractracker Alliance: www.fractracker.org/…
2. CA Governor controls 4 times as many offshore wells as Trump: Brown last year has called Trump’s plan to expand federal offshore oil drilling leases “short-sighed and reckless. However, a website – www.BrownvTrumpOilMap.com — shows Brown controls four times more oil wells in state waters than those Trump controls in federal waters, according to Consumer Watchdog.
Offshore wells in state waters controlled by the Brown Administration total 5460, versus 1429 offshore wells in federal waters controlled by the Trump administration. Federal waters are those three nautical miles or more off California’s coast.
Of the state wells, 2028 are active; 1336 are production wells, while the rest are support wells like wastewater disposal and water flood/steam flood/observation, etc, according to Kyle Ferrar of the Fractracker Alliance. The federal offshore wells include 702 wells listed as active.
3. Air Quality: California has some of the worst air pollution in the nation: The American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report finds that an increasing number of Americans—more than 4 in 10—lived with unhealthy air quality, placing their health and lives at risk. The 20th annual air quality “report card” found that 141.1 million people lived in counties with unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution, an increase of more than 7.2 million Americans since the last annual report.
“Eight cities recorded their highest number of days with unhealthy spikes in particle pollution since the nation began monitoring this pollutant 20 years ago. And the nation recorded more days with air quality considered hazardous, when air quality reached “emergency conditions”—Maroon on the air quality index—than ever before,” according to the association. California cities topped the group’s list of the nation’s most polluted cities:
By Year Round Particle Pollution
By Short Term Particle Pollution
WSPA/Big Oil and the six ways it exerts its control
The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) is not a household name in California, but it should be. It’s the trade association for the oil industry and the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying organization in the state. If you want to know the industries, organizations and people that control California, WSPA and Big Oil are right at the top of the list.
WSPA represents a who’s who of oil companies including oil giants Chevron, Exxon, Occidental Petroleum and many others. The companies that WSPA represents account for the bulk of petroleum exploration, production, refining, transportation and marketing in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, according to the WSPA website, www.wspa.org.
WSPA and Big Oil wield their power and influence over public discourse in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: (5) working in collaboration with media; and (6) contributing to non profit organizations.
Over the past decade, WSPA and Big Oil have topped the list of spenders on lobbying the Legislature in California, the nation’s third largest oil producing state. During the 2015-2016 Legislative Session, the oil industry spent a historic $36.1 million to lobby lawmakers and officials in California.
WSPA 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.
In 2017, Big Oil also dominated three out of the four top spots of expenditures by all lobbying organizations. Chevron placed first with $8.2 million and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) placed second with $6.2 million. Tesoro Refining and Marketing Company finished fourth with $3.2 million.
That’s a total of $17.6 million dumped into lobbying by the three top oil industry lobbying organizations alone. That figure exceeds the $14,577,314 expended by all 16 oil lobby organizations in 2016.
In the first six months of 2017, the oil industry spent more on lobbying in California, $16,360,618, in the first six months of 2017 than was spent by the industry in all of 2016, $16.0 million.
This translates to an average of $2.7 million per month – $90,000 per day – according to a report compiled and written by William Barrett of the Lung Association in California. Over the past ten years, oil lobbying in California has topped $150 million: www.lung.org/…
The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA has topped lobbying spending in California most years. In 2018 the group was the second-highest spender for the year, only trumped by the nearly $10 million spent by PG&E lobbying state officials.
For the entire 2017-2018 Session, WSPA spent a total of $15,768,069 and spent $7,874, 807 to influence California government officials in 2018. The powerful association spent all of its money in the 2017-2018 session on general lobbying, Of the four quarters, WSPA spent its most money lobbying, $2,649,018, in the eighth quarter, from October 1 to December 31, 2018.
With help from the “Big Oil Caucus,” a group of oil industry friendly Democrats in the State Legislature, the oil industry has been successful at halting other important bills aimed at better regulating its practices.
These bills included AB 356 (Williams), SB 248 (Pavley), and SB 484 (Allen). These bills would have reformed the state’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program by requiring disclosure of chemicals used in well treatments or injections; ensuring that oil and gas projects do not contaminate aquifers containing water suitable for drinking and irrigation; requiring the State Water Board to review aquifer exemption applications; and/or requiring the shutdown of illegal injection wells if regulators fail to shut them down.
The industry also notably stopped a bill to protect the coast from oil spills, SB 788, sponsored by Senator Mike McGuire.
In 2017, the massive infusion of Big Oil money enabled it to push through Governor Jerry Brown’s AB 398, a bill based on a Western States Petroleum Association wish list that extends California’s controversial cap and trade program with provisions very favorable to the oil industry. The gusher of the oil industry also resulted in the shelving of SB 834, a bill banning any new pipelines and other infrastructure to support new oil drilling leases in federal waters off the California coast, although an amended version of the bill was passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor in 2018. (www.dailykos.com/…)
2. Campaign Spending
Big Oil has pumped $170 million into CA campaigns since 2001. WSPA and its members contributed more than $112 million to ballot measure campaigns, $8 million to state candidates, and $50 million to other California political action committees and party committees, according to a MapLight analysis of data from the California Secretary of State, in February 2018.
Chevron tops the list of political donors from WSPA’s membership, contributing $89 million overall since 2001, the first year in which online data is available. Aera Energy has contributed the second most at roughly $40 million, and Valero is third at $13 million. For more information, go to: https://maplight.org/story/oil-and-gas-interests-pour-170-million-into-california-political-campaigns-since-2001/)
Then in October 2018, an 8-month-long NBC Bay Area and Maplight investigation found the oil and gas industry paid $182 million to California politicians, PACs and political causes between 2001 and June 30, 2018: https://www.nbcbayarea.com/investigations/Oil-Gas-Money-Green-California-Politics-494820061.html
the top 5 recipients (individual politicians) were as follows:
- Arnold Schwarzenegger ($169,350)
- Jerry Brown ($159,199)
- Gray Davis ($151,900)
- Cathleen Galgiani ($106,899)
- Margaret Whitman ($104,550)
The report also revealed that contributions from oil companies to individual politicians totaled $8,938,822 from 2001-2017. The top five politicians currently in government are:
- Assemblymember Jim Frazier – (D): 87,376
- Assemblymeber Catherine Baker (R): $82,818
- Senator Toni Atkins (D): $60,800
- Assemblymember Tim Grayson: $52,100
- Senator Steven Glazier (D): $42,350
Big Oil also dumps a lot of money into local and regional campaigns. In 2014, Chevron alone spent $3 million (unsuccessfully) to elect their selected candidates to the Richmond City Council. The oil industry also dumped $7.6 million into defeating a measure calling for a fracking ban in Santa Barbara County and nearly $2 million into an unsuccessful campaign to defeat a measure banning fracking and other extreme oil extraction techniques in San Benito County during the November 2014 election.
The oil industry spent a total of $266 million influencing California politics from 2005 to 2014, according to an analysis of California Secretary of State data by StopFoolingCA.org. The industry spent $112 million of this money on lobbying and the other $154 million on political campaigns: www.eastbayexpress.com/…
While Governor Jerry Brown received accolades for his frequent speeches at climate conferences around the world, he was the recipient of millions of dollars of Big Oil and Big Gas money that has promoted the expansion of offshore and onshore drilling in California in his third and fourth terms as Governor.
Consumer Watchdog’s groundbreaking report, “Brown’s Dirty Hands,” reveals how Brown and his top appointees used the Democratic Party as a “slush fund, sucking in contributions from unpopular energy companies in close proximity, and sometimes on the same day, that his Administration helped those companies in controversial ways.”
“Twenty-six energy companies including Occidental, Chevron, NRG and the state’s three major investor-owned utilities – all with business before the state – donated $9.8 million to Jerry Brown’s campaigns, causes, and initiatives, and to the California Democratic Party since he ran for Governor. Donations were often made within days or weeks of winning favors. The three major investor-owned utilities alone contributed nearly $6 million,” according to the report. “Between 2011 and 2014, the energy companies tracked by Brown’s Dirty Hands donated $4.4 million to the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party gave $4.7 million to Brown’s re-election committee.”
3. Regulatory Panels & Commissions
In California, oil and gas industry officials don’t just influence state officials. In a number of cases, oil industry leaders ARE the state regulators as they serve on regulatory panels and commissions.
In one classic example, the WSPA President, Catherine Reheis- Boyd, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create “marine protected areas” in Southern California from 2009 to 2012 – and served on the task forces for the Central Coast, North Central Coast or North Coast from 2004 to 2012. (www.dfg.ca.gov/…
While she oversaw the crafting “marine protected areas” that fail to protect the ocean from pollution, fracking, oil drilling, military testing, corporate aquaculture and all human impacts other than sustainable fishing and gathering, her husband, James Boyd, was vice chair of the California Energy Commission. (www.energy.ca.gov/…)
Big Oil also gets its buddies in key positions in regulatory agencies. In November 2011, Governor Brown fired two regulators, Derek Chernow, acting director of Department of Conservation, and his deputy, Elena Miller. Brown replaced Chernow with Mark Nechodom to expedite permits in Kern County,
Nechodom, in turn resigned in the summer of 2015 the day after Central Valley farmers filed a RICO lawsuit alleging that Governor Jerry Brown’s office ordered the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”) to approve permits to inject contaminated water in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In October 2015, Governor Brown announced the appointment of Bill Bartling, 61, of Bakersfield, who has worked as an oil industry executive and consultant, as district deputy for Bakersfield in the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) at the embattled California Department of Conservation. (yubanet.com/…)
4. Astroturf Groups
Not only does Big Oil spend millions every year on lobbying and campaign contributions, but it funds “Astroturf” campaigns to oppose and weaken environmental laws.
“Astroturfing” is the practice, used often by powerful corporate interests, of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participant(s).
Leaked documents provided to Northwest Public Radio, Business Week, and other media outlets in 2014 exposed a campaign by the Western States Petroleum Association to fund and coordinate a network of “Astroturf” groups to oppose environmental laws and local campaigns against fracking in California, Washington, and Oregon.
This network was revealed in a PowerPoint presentation from a November 11, 2014 presentation to the Washington Research Council given by Reheis-Boyd. (www.indybay.org/…)
The network featured a total of 16 “Astroturf” groups, including the California Drivers Alliance, Fed Up at The Pump, Californians Against Higher Taxes, Save Our Jobs, Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy, AB 32 Implementation Group, Tank the Tax, Oregonians for Sound Fuel Policy, Californians for Affordable & Reliable Energy, Fueling California and California Fuel Facts.
5. Media Complicity with Big Oil
Most mainstream and “alternative” media have done a poor job to date covering the connections between fracking and other extreme oil extraction methods and Big Oil money and power in Sacramento. (www.projectcensored.org/…)
Nor will you see much media coverage of how the Los Angeles Times and the California Resources Corporation, an Occidental Petroleum spinoff, teamed up to create “Powering California,” a Big Oil propaganda campaign website. (www.indybay.org/…)
Clean Energy California broke the story on their twitter page when they published an October 27 tweet from Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd promoting the new site.
Reheis-Boyd tweeted, “Learn how California’s #energy industry is quietly elevating the middle class & improving our quality of life: poweringcalifornia.com”
6. Donating to non-profit organizations
Chevron and other oil and gas corporations spend millions on funding non-profit groups to extend their realm of influence.
For example, Richmond Chevron contributed $6,915,190 in 2015 alone, including $3,888,750 for economic development; 2,339,879 for education; $444,261 for youth and public safety; and $242,300 for civic and community.
Since 2012, Richmond Chevron has “invested” $25 million in local non-profit groups. (http://richmond.chevron.com/docs/2015_Community_Giving.pdf)
Capture of the regulators from top to bottom
What do all six methods used by the oil industry to influence California politicians and regulators buy? They buy deep regulatory capture — the capture of the regulators by the regulated — from top to bottom and the manipulation of public discourse to the point where most Californians have no about Big Oil’s capture of the regulatory apparatus.
As a result, only two bills opposed by the oil industry have made it out of the legislature to the Governor’s Desk in the past three years, even while the Governor and Legislature have incessantly portrayed the state as the nation’s “green leader.”
At the same time as the oil industry has pumped millions of dollars every year into lobbying and campaign expenditures, there was a massive expansion of new oil and gas drilling under administration of Governor Jerry Brown. A report published on May 22, 2018, by Oil Change International, in collaboration with California-based and national environmental justice and climate groups, reveals how California’s climate leadership requires a managed ramp-down of oil production.
“The Sky’s The Limit: California” provided new data findings on the climate and budgetary impacts of three related policies:
- Ceasing the permitting of new oil and gas extraction wells;
- Implementing a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer around homes, schools, and hospitals in which existing wells would phase out; and
- Placing a Just Transition Fee on oil extraction in the state exclusively dedicated to supporting affected workers and communities through the transition to clean energy
On April 11, last year, more than 750 public interest groups from California and around the world kicked off a campaign, “Brown’s Last Chance,” urging Governor Brown to stop the build-out of dirty fossil fuel infrastructure, keep oil and gas in the ground, and “take immediate action to protect those most vulnerable to climate change or lose their support for the global climate action summit” that he will host September 12-14, 2018, in San Francisco. Unfortunately, in spite of 30,000 people marching through the streets of San Francisco, and several days of direct action at Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Conference, Brown refused to budge one bit.
Will Newsom Change Things?
During his campaign, California Governor Gavin Newsom pledged to “on day one … issue a directive putting California on a clear path to 100 percent renewable energy.”
Newsom also signed a pledge to take no oil money during his campaign, a result of political pressure by the Oil Money Out campaign.
On March 27, a coalition of 120 organizations called on Gov. Newsom to fulfil his pledge by doing the following.
• End new oil and gas development
• Halt the most dangerous forms of drilling, like fracking, acidizing and cyclic steam
• Create a plan for ending all fossil fuel production in California in the next ten years
• Institute a moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines, power plants, refineries and export facilities
• Implement a 2,500 foot setback for all current drilling projects to protect homes, schools, hospitals, and water supplies
• Protect the state’s water supply from oil and gas contamination by halting the injection of oil wastewater into aquifers and prohibiting the use of oil wastewater to irrigate crops.
• Put California on the path to a fair and just transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 in line with scientific consensus and national calls for a green new deal
Then on April 23, leading frontline environmental justice organizations announced a new coalition VISIÓN — “to advocate for safe and effective statewide policies to protect people from the impacts of drilling for oil and gas.” Voices in Solidarity against Neighborhood Drilling (VISIÓN) is leading efforts in California for health and safety protections from oil and gas operations, according to a press release from the coalition.
On the day before, members of the coalition and their allies were instrumental in getting AB 345 (Health and Safety Zones), passed out of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee by a 7-3-1 vote. Again, Committee members Al Muratsuchi, Laura Friedman, Monique Limon, Ed Chau, Kevin McCarty, Cristina Garcia, MarkStone cast the “aye” votes. Assembly member Susan Eggman abstained and Davon Mathis, Heath Flora, and Melissa Melendez voted “no” to require setbacks from oil wells — a basic health and safety regulation that other Big Oil states, including Pennsylvania, Colorado and Texas already have.
The Western States Petroleum Association and the oil companies will undoubtedly spend millions of dollars to stop his bill that establishes a 2500 foot health and safety zone (setback) between oil drilling and sensitive sites like homes, schools, and playgrounds.
VISIÓN is comprised of Central California Asthma Collaborative (CCAC), Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN), Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment (CRPE), Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA), ¡SALUD! Kern County, California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), and Californians Against Fracking and Dangerous Drilling (CAF).
On the national level, things are even worse under the Trump administration. Right now Trump’s Secretary of Interior is David Bernhardt, a lobbyist for Big Oil and Westlands Water District that I have covered here in a series of articles. Trump is supporting new oil drilling on public lands and new federal offshore oil drilling leases on the West Coast, destructive plans that a broad coalition of environmental justice, indigenous, fishing and conservation groups is now fighting.
This article is based on an Earth Day presentation that I made at the Events Center at Chabot College this week at the invitation of physics professor Nick Alexander.