California lawmakers block bill making oil companies liable for some health problems

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers blocked two big environmental bills Thursday: One that would have ramped up the state's emissions targets, and another that would have made oil companies liable for the health problems of people who live close to oil wells.

They are among the hundreds of bills that did not survive the Legislature’s suspense file, a mysterious process where lawmakers decide — with no explanation — which bills will get a chance to become law later this year and which ones should not move forward.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that bans drilling new oil wells within 3,200 feet (975 meters) of sensitive areas like homes and schools. But the law hasn’t taken effect because the oil industry qualified a referendum on the 2024 ballot asking voters to overturn it.

That referendum angered environmental and health advocates. They decided if the oil industry wanted to block that law, then they would try to pass another law making it easier for oil companies to be held liable for health problems of people who live near wells. The bill, authored by Sen. Lena Gonzalez, would have required oil companies to pay up to $1 million to people who have cancer or other health problems associated with the well.

“Today, we missed a key opportunity to advance legislation that would hold polluters accountable and prevent further harm to families who are just trying to stay healthy and have a better quality of life,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

The Senate Appropriations Committee stopped the bill from getting a vote by the full Senate, meaning it is not likely to become law this year. Jamie Court, president of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, blamed committee chair Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from Burbank who is also running for Congress.

“A bill like this should get a hearing by the full Senate and not be shoved in a drawer by one politician when we have millions of people living within a half mile of oil wells whose lives and health are at threat every damn day,” Court said.

Portantino’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment about why the bill was held.

Kara Greene, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association, which opposed the bill, said it would have been unfair to oil and gas companies and done more harm than good.

“The billions of dollars and the fiscal mess that this bill would have caused to the State and local governments from their own liabilities, the fiscal responsibility of inherited wells, and the cost to the court system, would be substantial,” Greene said in a statement.

State Sen. Henry Stern, a Los Angeles Democrat, introduced another bill this year that would have required the state to reduce its planet-warming emissions to 55% below the 1990 level by the end of 2030. The state has already set out to reduce those emissions by 40% by that same deadline.

“The bill dying was a reflection of the impasse I worry we’re heading towards on climate in California," Stern said in a statement. "As the world races ahead, we may get stuck debating pathways forward.”

A similar bill introduced last year didn't make it to the governor's desk.

California is also aiming to achieve carbon neutrality, meaning the state will remove as many carbon emissions as it releases, by 2045. The state Air Resources Board has approved rules to limit pollution from cars, trucks, lawn mowers and trains.

Bills that were held in the Senate and Assembly appropriations committees are not likely to pass this year, with a June 2 deadline looming for legislation to advance from one chamber.

Other bills that failed included a plan to allow people struggling with suicidal thoughts to voluntarily register themselves on a “do not sell” list for firearms, and a proposal to ban people under 21 years old from using mobile phones, even hands-free, while driving. A bill that would require the Department of Justice to investigate all police’s use-of-force incidents that resulted in the death of civilians also didn't make it through Thursday, nor did legislation that would have expanded access to mental health treatment for inmates.

Some proposals, including legislation to create a mental health hotline for California State University system students and a bill to stock government bathrooms with free menstrual products, were designated as two-year bills, meaning that they won't be voted on before January.

Once bills are voted on in the Senate or Assembly, those that passed will move on to the other chamber. The Legislature has until mid-September to pass bills, then Newsom has about a month to reject them or sign them into law. ___ This story was first published on May 18, 2023. It was updated on May 19, 2023 to correct that Sen. Henry Stern is from Los Angeles, not Malibu. The AP also incorrectly described legislation as allowing people who live near oil wells to sue the oil companies over health issues. Oil companies can already be sued but the legislation would make them liable for those health issues under certain conditions.


Associated Press writers Adam Beam and Trân Nguyễn contributed.


Sophie Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna