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Appeals Court Rejects Big Oil’s Lawsuit Against L.A. Youth Groups, City of Los Angeles

In a victory for environmental justice, a California appeals court on February 15 dismissed the California Independent Petroleum Associations’s lawsuit against youth organizations from South Los Angeles and Wilmington, the Center for Biological Diversity and the city of Los Angeles.

The California 2nd District Court of Appeals reversed a previous order by Judge Terry A. Green of the L.A. Superior Court denying the special motions by the nonprofit organizations and the city to strike the oil industry lawsuit.

The oil industry is the most powerful corporate lobby in California, so this big win by the Center and youth groups is very significant.

The California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) filed the suit after the groups won protections against neighborhood oil drilling from the city, according to a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and Youth for Environmental Justice.

CIPA is “a non-profit, non-partisan trade association representing approximately 500 independent crude oil and natural gas producers, royalty owners, and service and supply companies operating in California,” according to the CIPA website at: www.cipa.org/.  The association’s members represent approximately 70% of California’s total oil production and 90% of California’s natural gas production, including Exxon and Chevron.

“Using lawsuits to shut people up has long been a part of the oil industry’s playbook, but the tides are changing,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “This decision affirms that communities have the right to demand protection from pollution without fear of retaliation from polluters.”

Siegel said oil and gas drilling releases toxic chemicals known to cause a range of health problems, from asthma and headaches to a higher risk of cancer.

“Drilling sites in South Los Angeles and Wilmington, neighborhoods that are predominantly black and Latino, are on average hundreds of feet closer to homes, schools and playgrounds than drilling sites in neighborhoods with larger numbers of white residents,” she stated.

“For decades the oil industry has put our health and safety in jeopardy,” said Nalleli Cobo, an activist with the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition. “Now we the youth are fighting back, and we’re winning. It’s time for justice and it’s time to put people’s health over profit.”

Cobo, a Los Angeles resident, knows first-hand the impacts of oil and gas drilling upon people’s health and safety, since she was sickened by toxic emissions from the oil drilling site, AllenCo., near her home.

“In 2011 when I was 9 years old, I suffered from lack of sleep, headaches, stomach pains, body spasms and asthma,” she explained. “After we worked with community members and then Senator Barbara Boxer to shut down the AllenCo. site, all of these symptoms disappeared in 2013 except that I now have asthma. I still have to use two inhalers and take pills daily.”

In November of 2015, Youth for Environmental Justice , the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the city of Los Angeles for “rubber-stamping oil projects in communities of color.”

The groups sued the city “for allowing oil companies to drill hundreds of contaminating wells near homes without conducting mandatory environmental studies and for exposing black and Latino residents to disproportionate health and safety risks by imposing less-protective rules in their neighborhoods.”

Unlike other oil and gas producing states including Pennsylvania, Colorado and Texas, California requires no mandatory oil and gas well setbacks from homes and schools.

The groups and city reached a settlement in 2016 after the city adopted new requirements for drilling applications to ensure compliance with state environmental review rules and protect vulnerable communities.

However, the California Independent Petroleum Association then countersued the city and groups, arguing that the new requirements raised drillers’ costs without due process.

The youth groups’ attorneys filed an anti-SLAPP motion, calling CIPA’s lawsuit “a classic example of a retaliatory strategic lawsuit against public participation” (“SLAPP Suit”) that violates California law. In an unexpected ruling, the L.A. Superior Court denied the motion.

The ruling by the California 2nd District Court of Appeals reversed that decision, siding with the groups and dismissing the Petroleum Association’s suit as having “no probability of prevailing.”

“Because Memorandum 133 does not expand the City’s discretionary authority to make decisions about drilling, redrilling or modification of existing conditions, CIPA cannot show the measure implicates any property rights of its owners,” the appeals court ruled.  “Without such an impact, CIPA has no probability of prevailing on its claim that due process requires voiding the settlement between the City and the Nonprofits and compelling further litigation of Nonprofits’ case to a termination of merits.”

The court also said the decision “obliterates any claim CIPA might have for attorney fees and its appeal of the order is accordingly moot.” CIPA had requested nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in attorneys’ fees from the city and groups.

“I’ll never let the oil industry bully me into silence,” said Briannda Escobedo of Youth for Environmental Justice. “This win shows what happens when communities come together to stand up to polluters. It gives me hope to continue fighting for the healthy neighborhoods we deserve.”

A CIPA representative has not responded to my request for a comment on the court decision.

In spite of California’s “green” facade, state regulators during the Governor Jerry Brown administration approved over 21,000 new oil and gas drilling permits, including over 200 new offshore oil wells in state waters under existing leases.

The reason for the oil drilling expansion in California, as well as the failure of the state to require setbacks from wells as is done in other oil producing states, is because the oil industry dominates lobbying spending in California every year, resulting in the capture of the state regulators by the regulated.

In 2017, Big Oil 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. The 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 2018, the top three spenders were PG&E, with $9,580,357 spent lobbying California officials, followed by WSPA, with $7,874, 807 spent, and Chevron, with about $4 million spent.

For more information about Big Oil money and power in California, go here.

More articles by:

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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