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In the Shadow of Big Oil: Neighborhood drilling in California will finally end

California will finally stop allowing oil wells near people’s backyards


When the oil rigs looming over Diego Martinez’s backyard start drilling into the earth, his house shakes so violently that the noise of the keys hanging in the hallway echoes through the house. “Literally all my life, I’ve been hearing it,” says Martinez. “We always wonder why an oil company is allowed to drill right next to our house. The well is only about 20 feet from my bedroom window. Whenever people visited us they would ask, ‘What’s that noise? Why does everything shake?’” Martinez’s experience is not unique in California’s rural Central Valley, which contains 70% of the state’s oil operations. It may seem surprising for a state often heralded as a leader in environmental progress; yet for over a century, California has failed to adequately regulate its own oil and gas industry — with devastating health effects for the people forced to live near it. Now, California is getting serious about addressing environmental injustices caused by its oil and gas policies.


Last summer, the California state legislature passed a bill, S.B. 1137, that bans new or reworked oil and gas wells anywhere in the state within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons. Critically, the bill requires safeguards for people like Martinez who live near existing drilling operations. These include tracking the release of toxic emissions from wells and storage tanks, restricting disruptive noise, and other measures. Earthjustice worked closely with environmental justice groups, testifying in the state capital and urging the passage of S.B. 1137. Originally scheduled to go into effect in Jan. 2023, the law is now on hold after an industry-led effort to overturn the law resulted in a statewide referendum. Voters will now decide in the Nov. 2024 general election whether California will finally stop allowing oil wells near people's backyards. The driving forces behind the safeguards in S.B. 1137 were frontline and environmental justice groups who are sick of the state using their neighborhoods to prop up a polluting industry. It is a promising step toward protecting California communities from oil and gas pollution — and creating a path to a clean energy future that breaks the century-old injustices of California’s oil and gas policies.


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