Letter from Sacramento: When Will the California Legislature Meet the Moment?

April 25, 2021 

A recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle said it best: “If California is America’s climate leader, we’re all in trouble.”

The ed board writers are right: any credible claim to climate leadership from the state of California has waned considerably in recent months as policymakers have slow-walked and/or rejected a suite of urgently needed policies to wind down fossil fuel use and ramp up the use of clean energy.

If we’re the model the rest of the United States is following, America’s fight against climate change will be a dud.

The editorial ran the day after an important bill that would have set key limits on fossil fuel extraction - a root cause of climate change - died in its first legislative committee at the State Capitol.

Senate Bill 467 (SB 467) — sponsored by an environment justice coalition known as Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISION) — would have put California on a path to phasing out fracking and other extreme oil and gas extraction technologies that pollute air and water quality in surrounding communities. It also would have mandated a 2,500 foot buffer zone between oil wells and homes, playgrounds, medical facilities, or schools.

The bill came before nine senators—seven Democrats and two Republicans—on the California Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee on April 13th. Five votes were needed for the bill to pass out of committee.

Four senators - Monique Limón (SD 19), Henry Stern (SD 27), Ben Allen (SD 26), and John Laird (SD 17) - rose to the occasion and supported the policy. Unsurprisingly, both of the committee's Republicans, Shannon Grove (SD 16) and Brian Jones (SD 38), voted against the bill after echoing industry talking points.

Of the committee’s three remaining Democratic lawmakers—Susan Eggman (SD 5), Robert Hertzberg (SD 18), and Ben Hueso (SD 40)—only one yes vote was needed for the bill to move forward.

Unfortunately, all three of these Democrats failed to support the legislation, and California’s latest effort to end fracking died in committee, with a no vote from Senator Eggman and abstentions from Senators Hertzberg and Hueso.

Why did these three senators fail to support SB 467?

fracking field

For Hertzberg and Hueso, the decision to abstain from voting, as frustrating and perplexing at it is, is not surprising given their legislative records.

But with Eggman, the story is more complicated. Understanding why she failed to support SB 467 sheds light on the influence that big oil retains over California leadership — as well as the key role that advocacy from Sierra Club California members can play in winning her back.

Eggman represents the northern portion of the San Joaquin Valley, encompassing the urban areas of Stockton, Tracy, and most of Modesto, as well as rural towns outside of these cities. Of the districts represented by these three key moderate Democrats, Eggman’s has the largest number of operational oil and gas wells—a total of 245. More than half of these wells are located within 2,500 feet of a home, school, or healthcare facility.

But the presence of oil and gas operations in her district has not stopped Eggman for voting for health and safety limitations in the past. As an Assemblymember from 2012-2020, Eggman reliably voted in favor of policies to restrict oil and gas operations.

Just last legislative session, Eggman supported Assembly Bill 345 (AB 345), which would have set a mandatory buffer zone between oil and gas operations and the places where Californians live, work, and play. On VISION’s Oil and Gas Scorecard, which assesses the oil and gas records of California legislators, Eggman’s legislative record has earned her an 86%.

So what happened?

Last fall, when Eggman was running for Senate, big oil funneled money into her opponents’ primary campaigns. While Eggman ultimately won her seat, the flood of fossil fuel funds clearly rattled her. So although she’s received fewer “dirty dollars” than either Hertzberg and Hueso, according to our Dirty Dollars Report, fear of fossil fuel money may still be influencing her decision making.

Eggman is now serving her first and only term in the Senate. It’s clear she doesn’t have big oil in her corner—so we have an opportunity as environmental advocates to push her to be the advocate for climate and public health that she was just last year.

Our advocacy can play a key role in influencing her vote on fossil fuel legislation in the future.

And while Hertzberg and Hueso have a history of cozying up to fossil fuel interests, advocacy from Sierra Club California members is still essential to communicate that their rejection of commonsense health and climate policies is unacceptable.

Hertzberg represents a district in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, where there are only 53 operational oil and gas wells — 26 of which are located within 2,500 feet of a home, school, or healthcare facility.

A self-described “lifelong advocate for California’s environment,” Hertzberg not only voted against AB 345, he vociferously belittled environmental justice advocates in the process, and trivialized the public health impacts oil and gas wells have on communities.

Since voting against safety setbacks last year, Sierra Club CA’s Dirty Dollars Report shows that Hertzberg has received nearly $60,000 in donations from pro-oil entities that opposed both AB 345 and SB 467.

Further south, Hueso represents southern San Diego County and all of Imperial County. SB 467 is the fourth health-centered oil and gas bill that Hueso has either abstained from voting on at a crucial moment, or killed.

Last year, Hueso played a key role, along with Hertzberg, in killing AB 345. In 2019, he abstained from voting for a bill to strengthen reporting requirements for abandoned and potentially hazardous oil wells (fortunately this still passed and was signed into law). And in 2014, Hueso’s choice to abstain from voting on a bill that would have enacted a fracking moratorium until environmental impacts could be assessed contributed to the bill’s defeat.

What makes Hueso’s lack of climate and health leadership perplexing is that Hueso does not represent an oil-heavy district. It has even fewer operational oil and gas wells than Hertzberg’s district—a total of 24, only 10 of which are located within 2,500 feet of a home, school, or healthcare facility. Since voting against AB 345, he’s only received $16,000 in pro-oil contributions.

If you live in either Hertzberg’s or Hueso’s districts, I urge you to call their district offices and press them on their non-vote. They must be held accountable for their failure to address the public health and climate implications of dangerous fossil fuel extraction techniques.

In 2022, both Hueso and Hertzberg will term-out of office—meaning that their districts will soon elect new leadership.

At the Sierra Club California, we believe their constituents deserve leaders who won’t accept oil and gas money—and who will stand up to industry, and vote to protect Californian’s from the health impacts of fossil fuel extraction.

We need leaders who will meet the moment. Will you join us in holding California’s legislators to account?


Brandon Dawson

Brandon Dawson
Acting Director

Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.

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