Big Oil’s Outrageous Spending in California

Sacramento, CA — If you thought the $18 million that Big Oil spent on lobbying California officials in 2022 was outrageous, the gusher of money the oil and gas industry is spending in their campaign to control the regulatory apparatus is even worse this year.

Big Oil spent $9.4 million attempting to influence the California Legislature, Governor’s Office and agencies in the first quarter of 2023, according to lobbying disclosures by the oil and gas industry now posted on the California Secretary of State’s website.

“The dollar amount puts Big Oil on pace to greatly exceed the $18 million it spent lobbying in Sacramento in 2022, with $3.7 million spent in Q1 of 2022 and nearly $10 million spent by mid-year 2022,” according to a press statement from Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISION).

Normally the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) tops the quarterly oil lobbying spending, but Chevron led the lobbying expenditures for January-March 2023.

Chevron came in first with over $4.9 million spent in the first quarter, while the Western States Petroleum Association finished second with over $2.3 million and Aera Energy finished third with nearly $628,000.

Oil refiners affected by the price gouging penalty legislation — Chevron, Marathon, Phillips 66, Valero and PBF Energy — spent a combined $5.6 million, noted VISION.

A chart depicting the top ten top spenders can be seen below.

“It’s outrageous, but the fact that Big Oil is spending so much to keep control of the state legislature is a testimony to the progress that the Assembly and Senate have made,” said Kobi Naseck, coalition Coordinator of Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods. “We saw it last fall in S.B. 1137, the historic bill to pass public-health buffer zones outside of extraction sites, and this year in SBX 1-2, which marks the end of Big Oil’s price gouging of working families at the pump.”

“The industry knows what’s at stake here in California, and so do we. We will not allow the million-dollar corporate machine to undo the protective measures we’ve fought for on behalf of Californians on the frontline of the climate and economic crisis,” stated Naseck.

“Particularly noteworthy — across the supply chain from drillers, oil storers, pipeline and oil-by-rail operators, refiners and gasoline sellers — the industry went all-in on attempting to defeat SBX 1-2,” noted Naseck.

SBX 1-2, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom at the end of the quarter, creates a regulatory process overseen by the California Energy Commission to mandate more transparency and accountability for how Big Oil prices its dirty product and sells it at the pump in California, according to VISION.

The bill, coming after Californians faced record prices at the pump in 2022, enables the agency to implement a price gouging penalty if it finds that a refiner has engaged in predatory pricing practices harming consumers.

“The mad scramble, all-hands-on-deck lobbying activity comes as the industry is increasingly under scrutiny for its climate-wrecking, community-intoxicating, consumer-harming conduct,” according to the group.

Marathon, one of the Big 5 refiners, also lobbied against legislation (AB 1614) authorizing the Energy Commission to study the prospect of phasing out gas stations as the state fulfills its mandate to move away from internal combustion engine vehicles and toward Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) over the next decade, the group stated.

“Disclosures show that companies and trade associations lobbied against climate and environmental justice protections, transparency and accountability measures for price gouging and to continue drilling and leaving pollution behind in ways harmful to frontline communities,” the group revealed.

According to VISION, other “exemplary bills” receiving lobbying engagement by Big Oil during the quarter included:

SB 252 – Legislation calling on state public pension systems to divest from fossil fuels, Big Oil lobbied heavily against it

SB 253 and SB 261 – The former calls on large California-based corporations to disclose greenhouse gas emissions, while the latter creates a mandate for companies operating in California to disclose their climate-related financial risk. Both got lobbying backlash.

AB 1167 – Multiple companies, as well as WSPA, lobbied against this bill that would compel companies to hold financing in place for idle and abandoned wells. These wells are known to emit greenhouse gases and pollute communities.

SB 1 and AB 2 – Multiple companies lobbied to suspend motor fuels vehicle taxes, including ones that finance the Low Carbon Fuels Standard to transition the state away from gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles.

SB 674 – WSPA and Marathon lobbied against this legislation that would mandate fenceline air quality monitoring at refineries.

Total number of oil drilling permits soars to 14,623 since Jan. 2019 

As the oil industry pumped $9.4 million into influencing state officials during the first quarter of 2023,  CalGEM approved a total of 897 permits throughout the state, a 40% uptick over the first quarter of 2022, according to an analysis by Fractracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog.

All but one for new drilling were for work on existing wells, including fixing, deepening, and redrilling them. Permits for work on existing wells rose 76% over the same period last year, according to an analysis by Kyle Ferrar of the Fractracker Alliance.

“In the first quarter, 62% of all the permits approved in the setback zone—totaling 556—were primarily to repair or redirect drilling in existing wells to more productive geologic formations,” said Ferrar.

“An independent scientific advisory panel had advised CalGEM that a 3,200-foot setback—or one kilometer–between homes, schools, daycares, hospitals, and other sensitive receptors was the minimum distance to protect public health,” revealed Ferrar.

Nevertheless, he said Californian women living within 6.2 miles of at least one oil or gas well during pregnancy have an increased risk of low-birthweight babies.  Proximity to active oil operations increases the risk of premature birth by 40% and the chances of a high-risk pregnancy by 30%.

The total number of oil drilling permits approved since Governor Gavin Newsom took office in Jan. 2019 soared to 14,623 in the first quarter of 2023.

7.4 million Californians—nearly one in five—currently live within a mile of an active well, according to the two groups. Risk of harm from chronic exposure to toxic emissions from wells has been documented among residents who live up to 6.2 miles from a well.

Set to go into effect in January 2023, the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) sponsored the referendum that has delayed the implementation of the setbacks law for two years. Filings with the California Secretary of State reveal that oil companies funneled over $20 million to the committee Stop the Energy Shutdown, a “Coalition Of Small Business Owners, Concerned Taxpayers, Local Energy Producers And The California Independent Petroleum Association.

The two groups track and map new well approvals at the site

Background: Big Oil spent $34.2 million on lobbying in the 2021-22 session

In addition to $20 million the oil industry paid to challenge SB 1137, the oil and gas industry spent over $34.2 million on lobbying the Legislature and other state officials in the 2021-22 Legislative Session.

While a long and hard-fought campaign by environmental justice groups, with the help of Governor Gavin Newsom, was able to finally get SB 1137 approved by the Legislature, other important bills were stopped by oil industry-backed legislators. Those measures include a bill to ban offshore drilling off the California coast and another bill to divest State of California pension funds from investments in the fossil fuel industry.

In addition to stopping key climate justice bills, the gusher of Big Oil and Big Gas lobbying money also resulted in CalGEM’s approval of 3,382 permits in 2022, including 551 new well permits and 2,831 oil well rework permits.

The Western States Petroleum Association, the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in Sacramento, spent $11,720,912 in the 2021-22 session:…

Chevron Corporation, the San-Ramon based oil giant that is infamous for environmental devastation and degradation from the Ecuadorian Amazon to Richmond, California, spent a total of $8,631,118 lobbying California officials in the 2021-22 session.

WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 8 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; (6) sponsoring awards ceremonies, including those for legislators and journalists; (7) contributing to non profit organizations; and (8) creating alliances with labor unions.

To read my story on how the Western States Petroleum Association has embarked on a campaign to sponsor dinners and awards for the media and journalists, go here.

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher