Will California voters believe Big Oil or Jane Fonda?



When Hiram Johnson and the California Progressives adopted the referendum, ballot initiative and recall process just over a century ago, they had a fairly specific goal in mind. They sought to reserve power for the people in instances where big business, specifically the Southern Pacific Railroad, wielded corrupt influence.

The reforms were meant to allow the electorate to remove the officials responsible, pass laws over their objections, or undo their acts. People over business.

Yet next fall Californians will consider a referendum sponsored by big business to undo the act of the people’s elected leaders — a recurring theme in recent years. The specific matter at issue is Senate Bill 1137, a 2022 law that bans oil drilling within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, hospitals and the like. Oil companies responded by circulating petitions to challenge the legislation with a referendum, and voters will get the opportunity to decide its fate this year.

“It’s an egregious attack on democracy,” actress and activist Jane Fonda (yes, that Jane Fonda) told me recently. “It’s the most egregious attack on democracy and public health I’ve ever seen.”

Substantive issues

At its core, the referendum is one of “environmental justice,” said Fonda, who is helping organize the opposition. In a state where some 2.7 million people live within a few thousand feet of an oil well, public health advocates made their case that buffer zones were in the public interest, and their elected leaders responded.

That is how representative democracy is supposed to work. The referendum seeks to undo that, and it does so by marshaling a tool historically intended to curb the power of big business.

There are certainly substantive issues to consider. How bad are the health consequences of growing up in a home a few hundred feet from an oil well? Would creating the setbacks required by the bill damage the economy of California or raise the price of gasoline? Would that price be worth paying if it was spent to protect the state’s public health?

Supporters of the bill (and therefore, the opponents of the referendum) say that the price is minimal and the benefit considerable. A report to the Los Angeles City Council noted that “activities related to oil and gas operations have been associated with many potential negative health and safety impacts, especially when they occur in close proximity to sensitive uses such as homes, schools, places of worship, recreation areas, and healthcare facilities.”

In 2022, the council voted to ban new wells and phase out old ones over the next two decades.

SB 1137 was a companion idea. But even as Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill, oil companies rushed to head it off, calling their effort “Stop the Energy Shutdown.”

They were successful. After spending some $20 million to collect signatures, the law was shelved. Next November’s vote will determine if it gets implemented.

The industry’s argument is that, as long as oil is being consumed, it is better for it to come from local sources. If SB 1137 is allowed, California would be forced to “increase its reliance on imported oil, which could come from other oil-rich countries,” Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, wrote in an op-ed for CalMatters.

Last week, Zierman elaborated on that point, asserting that the law does nothing to decrease the state’s demand for oil.

“Californians consume 1.8 million barrels of oil a day,” he noted.

Supporters of the law question the seriousness of that argument, pointing out that oil is an internationally traded commodity, and a few oil wells in California residential neighborhoods are a negligible piece of the global market. Darkly warning of increased gas prices in this context is scare politics.

Test of democracy

For whatever reason — concern for prices, resistance to regulation, fear of the precedent of government mandates — oil companies have chosen to fight this. But they start at an obvious disadvantage: Californians have fought Big Oil before — some chart the modern environmental movement from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Environmental justice, with its emphasis on the disparate effects on poor Californians, is a compelling political argument in this very blue state.

It would take a lot of money to persuade Californians to trust Big Oil with their health and safety. But if Big Oil is unpopular, it is also rich. The campaign over drilling setbacks could thus be both a threat to democracy and a test of it.

Which brings me back to Jane Fonda.

She is not an official campaign spokesperson, but Fonda brings near-iconic status to the effort. First introduced to the public decades ago as a beautiful and talented actress, Fonda has parlayed her fame into political action. She has placed her reputation — even her life — in defense of participatory democracy. It is natural, then, that this test of democratic institutions and environmental protection drew her interest.

Fonda’s activism has made her a polarizing figure at times, but the issues that may have once struck mainstream America as fringe thunderbolts have gradually become recognized as sensible, even moderate, positions. It hardly seems radical today to have advocated for ending the Vietnam war, desegregation and equal voting rights; empowering women; or protecting the environment.

Fonda championed those causes when they were hard. In 2023, they seem natural.

“We’ve made quite a lot of progress,” she told me. “But the problems haven’t gone away.”



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