California’s Fossil Fuel Friendships – Part 1. Votes for Polluters over People

by Amy Moas

April 27, 2021

More than 2 million Californians are breathing more toxic and unhealthier air all because of the role of a small number of key California lawmakers over the last two years.

Protecting Polluters Over People

Meet the 4 lawmakers holding up crucial health protections for more than 2 million Californians living near drilling.

This piece is the first installment of a series profiling some of the many ways that the fossil fuel industry exerts pressure across California’s government. Through lobbying, insider influence, campaign spending and more, the fossil fuel industry has secured friends within the Governor’s office, and at the legislative and regulatory levels resulting in cuts to public health and climate ambitions.

While California has the reputation as a trailblazer on environmental protections and climate action, the influence of the fossil fuel industry within the state’s political apparatus goes deep.  During the nine quarters of 2019, 2020 and the beginning of 2021, years of record fires and visible signs of our climate crisis, the oil and gas industry spent more than $37.5 million lobbying all levels of the California government. Just Chevron, Aera Energy, Western State Petroleum Association, and California Resources Corporation alone reportedly spent more than $10 million lobbying throughout the state.

As a result, the fossil fuel industry is securing big wins that are lining their pockets and keeping them in business   all at the expense of public health and the planet. 

It is not hyperbole to say that more than 2 million Californians are breathing more toxic and unhealthier air in part because of the role of a small number of key Democratic state senators over the last two years. We kick off this series of California’s fossil fuel friendships with a look at Senators Robert Hertzberg, Ben Hueso, Susan Eggman and Toni Atkins. 

California communities living near drilling
Active oil and fossil fuel sites in and around living space in the Wilmington neighborhood of the Los Angeles area.

Representing the 18th Senate District, which includes portions of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, and serving as the Senate Majority Leader Robert Hertzberg is a seasoned politician with a long and profitable relationship with the fossil fuel industry. Official filings show Senator Hertzberg having received $82,757 from the fossil fuel industry. However, by other accounts, Senator Hertzberg has taken almost $250,000 throughout his career from the fossil fuel industry, which includes direct donations, PACs, elaborate overseas trips and more.

Representing the 40th Senate District, including parts of Imperial and San Diego Counties and serving as Chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus Ben Hueso also has significant ties to the fossil fuel industry. Official filings show Senator Hueso has received $46,600 from the oil and gas industry during his career. Hueso also has behested tens of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry throughout his political career (when California politicians raise money from outside groups and then donate it to other nonprofits) which is just another form of money influencing politics.

Lastly, Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman, a moderate Democrat representing the 5th Senate District in the Central Valley, has received a collective $51,400 from the oil and gas industry, including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Tesoro, and the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA). 

So perhaps it was signed, sealed and delivered that in 2020, and again just weeks ago, in 2021 Hertzberg, Hueso, and Eggman would be key votes (and abstentions) to defeat public health and environmental justice bills that would have protected over 2 million Californians — overwhelmingly Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and working class communities — from the health harms of neighborhood drilling. 

These 4 California senators have taken a combined $288,607 from the fossil fuel industry

California state bills AB 345 in 2020 and SB467 in 2021 would have paved the way for a 2,500-foot public health and safety buffer zone to protect communities from the health harms of fossil fuel extraction sites, which emit harmful pollutants, such as hydrogen sulfide and known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors including benzene and formaldehyde. 

However, both bills were stopped in their tracks in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee by a few key senate votes. In 2020, Bob Hertzberg, Ben Hueso, and Senator Ann Caballerojoined Republican senators to defeat AB 345. In 2021, Senators Hertzberg and Hueso refused to vote on SB 467, while Susan Eggman sided with Senate Republicans to ultimately defeat the bill.

Senator Susan Eggman, who campaigned as a climate champion with support from many organizations in the state and in her community, not only voted against SB467 but also sealed the fate of the bill, when she refused to add her support despite amendments that would have  given the bill another shot at passing in committee. 

As the Senate President pro Tempore whose role is to set the legislative agenda and organize the votes around key pieces of legislation, Toni Atkins has also had a notable role in the repeated defeat of these public health protections. Senator Atkins, representing the 39th Senate District encompassing most of San Diego, has incredible ties to the oil and gas industry, taking over $107,000 throughout her career — providing a clue to the answer — who’s priorities is she serving?

Perhaps unsurprisingly but critically important, Senate Democrats voting against SB467 in 2021 received 16 times as much political contributions from the oil and gas industry compared to those who voted in support of the bill. 

Money shouldn’t buy votes, particularly when the health of millions of Californians is at stake

If the last two years have taught us anything, it is that California will struggle to hold off the worst impacts of climate change and protect the health and safety of all Californians if fossil fuel money continues to permeate the halls of Sacramento.  

A small handful of state senators including Hertzberg, Hueso, Eggman and Atkins are part of the reason our state has failed to address environmental racism and a public health crisis two years in a row. We must find a way to hold our elected officials accountable to protecting f frontline communities and looking beyond their cozy ties with the fossil fuel industry toward the long term livability of our planet.

Check out our Instagram post and leave a comment demanding these state senators terminate their fossil fuel friendships and finally protect people and not polluters. 

Amy Moas

By Amy Moas

Amy Moas, Ph.D. is a senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace based in Las Vegas. She focuses on combating the drivers of deforestation around the world including palm oil, pulp and paper, and illegal logging.

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