Ventura is the third or fourth largest oil producing county in California, and it has a long history of environmental injustice. Some of the state’s first oil wells were drilled right here in the 1800s.There are 4,124 active and idle wells located within Ventura County and over one thousand are located within the 2,500 foot legal setback distance from homes, schools and hospitals. More than 8,000 Ventura County residents live within 2,500 feet of an oil well and 60 percent of them are Latinx. My family and our two young children live within a mile of hundreds of oil wells and many of my neighbors live within feet of toxic oil drilling.
Study after study, including two last year from Stanford and Berkeley, show the negative health effects of living even within two miles of an oil well, including asthma, cancer and low birthweight in newborn babies. 5.4 million Californians already live within a mile of at least one oil or gas well. Of that group, 69 percent—3.7 million residents—are people of color.
Years of Organizing for Environmental Justice In Ventura County
In 2017 Food & Water Watch and our local allies at Climate First: Replacing Oil & Gas (CFROG) appealed the county’s approval of new oil wells within 1,600 feet of residents’ homes. This disadvantaged Latino community was already facing some of the highest pollution levels in California from pesticides and fossil fuels. So, the rubber stamping of permits without regard for environmental justice was nothing new here.
This time though, we knew we could delay and make the case that these wells should not be permitted. We knocked on as many doors as we could in the community, telling whoever would listen about the project we were appealing. Many had never heard of it. We collected thousands of petitions, held meetings at the local schools, trained and mentored organizing interns from the communities most affected. Despite our best efforts, we lost our appeal at the Ventura County Planning Commission later that year. But we knew the fight wasn’t over.
Food & Water Watch’s Long Game And Deep Organizing
We knew the Board of Supervisors — an elected body — would be our next line of appeal.
We used every tactic to apply pressure to the Board: petitions, phone calls, emails, and media pieces exposing the blatant environmental racism going unchecked with these oil well projects.
In the summer of 2019, the Board heard our appeal. Dozens of frontline community members, health professionals and lawyers joined us to testify against the new oil wells.
With a 3-2 vote, the Board of Supervisors denied the project — a first during Ventura’s long history of oil drilling! A few months later the Supervisors granted our second demand and included 2,500 foot buffer zones in the county’s final General Plan update, along with new regulations on flaring, a ban on gas hook-ups in new buildings and a ban on trucking oil fluids. The General Plan narrowly passed final approval on a 3-2 vote in 2020 after years of community organizing. But that wasn’t the only reward for our labor.
At last, the Board of Supervisors closed a big oil loophole that allowed oil companies like Aera (owned by Shell and Exxon Mobil) to use antiquated permits — sometimes more than 60 years old — without any requirement for environmental review on new wells. Once the Board closed the loophole, any new wells drilled under antiquated permits had to follow the modern laws and processes that all other oil companies have to follow when drilling new wells.
Big Oil Strikes Back In Ventura
The oil industry wasn’t going to let these new regulations pass easily, so they started to buy their way out of trouble. They poured over a million dollars into media buys and the election of oil-friendly politicians to the Board of Supervisors. They outspent us. But we out-organized them.
Food & Water Action Cal PAC, our sister Political Action Committee, helped elect community and environmental champion Carmen Ramirez to the Board of Supervisors in a decisive 56% to 43% victory, despite Big Oil heavily funding her opponent. The industry responded by throwing more money at their problems while trying to undermine the will of the people.
Big Oil filed seven separate lawsuits against the county of Ventura for passing the general plan with new oil regulations including setbacks and then they started a referendum process to undo the antiquated permit loophole closure.
In California, any citizen can challenge the decision of their local governmental bodies by collecting signatures from 10 percent of the local voting population. Big Oil spent over $600,000 on mercenary signature collectors to stand in front of grocery stores during the biggest surge of COVID-19 in our county. They regurgitated false talking points fed to them by the oil industry and put people’s lives at risk by not wearing masks. Designed as an ordinary citizen’s last resort to undo an unpopular decision, the referendum process was never meant as a way for Big Oil to buy its way out of trouble.
We Won’t Back Down and Neither Should Our Elected Officials
The oil industry’s money bought 40,000 signatures. If the county validates them, the Board will have to give Big Oil back their permit to pollute without oversight or put it before the voters during the next “regular election.” In the meantime, the new regulations have been suspended while the count is verified. Oil companies will definitely be using this window to drill as many new oil wells under the old loophole and continue to pollute without oversight.
The Ventura County Board of Supervisors should not be intimidated by Big Oil’s threats of lawsuits, and tactics that put our communities’ lives at risk. They need to investigate the claims of fraudulent information and the carelessness of the oil industry during the signature collecting process.
If the signatures are verified and if there’s a special election to vote on the oil loopholes, we will be ready to take on this Goliath again with the grassroots power and coalitions we’ve built over the years. They might have the money, but we have the people’s support. The past two years are evidence of just how powerful that can be.
Tell Ventura County to investigate the dirty tactics Big Oil used to trigger this referendum.