Big Oil’s big hits in 2015: the Dirty Dozen

The oil industry has been busy in California this year. Our list rounds up the top terrible things they’ve been doing in one horrifying list.

#12: Polluted our politics

WSPA remains California’s big spender

Western States Petroleum Association maintained the dubious honor of being the #1 lobbying force in the state of California for the first three quarters of 2015 (Q4 figures aren’t in yet), throwing down $6.8 million on lobbying moderate democrats between July and September. Though Big Oil historically spends more on lobbying than other sectors, they’ve really kicked it up in the last two years. Nearly $18 million polluted California politics in the first nine months of 2015, aimed at weakening and causing delays for pollution-cutting bills, with $11 million of that occurring in the third quarter alone.


#11: Pulled an oily coup to weaken pollution regulations

Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) and its oily companions pulled a clean-air coup with the ousting of Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido from the South Coast Air Quality Management District board. Pulido was replaced with Republican Lake Forest Councilman Dwight Robinson. The shift gave pro-oil members the balance of power on the board and enabled them to immediately weaken pollution regulations in a move the LA Times described as “unacceptable” backsliding. What may sound like a local political squabble actually has a big impact on the state, as the board controls pollution rules for over 17 million people — nearly half of all Californians — in four counties.


#10: Lied about impacts of clean air laws

Fuels came under the cap and the sky did not fall — but gas prices did

Remember way back in 2014 when oil industry henchman and front groups blew a gasket about the “hidden gas tax” that would drive up California gas prices and push us over a fiscal cliff into a new recession, because fuels were coming under the AB 32 cap-and-trade program? WSPA told us that the price of fuel could rise 16–76 cents a gallon and we were scared. And then Jan. 1st, came and “there was no price spike,” because the “increase was so small..no one noticed.” In fact, this year’s high prices are about equal to last year’s lows. Yeah, we remember that.


#9: Blew up a refinery

Getting Lucky in Torrance

A blast registering as a 1.7 on the Richter scale tore through Exxon’s Torrance refinery in February, sending clouds of toxic smoke and ash raining down on nearby neighborhoods. The blast injured four workers and resulted in 19 citations for workplace safety and health violations, forcing folks to ask, “how can we trust Exxon again?” given the understated risk.

In the silver lining department, it could have been worse — the blast came close to releasing hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic chemical that can form a cloud of gas that can drift for miles, causing injury and death. With more than 200,000 people living within 3 miles of the plant, California got lucky. We suppose it was sheer luck again, when a “significant incident” resulted in a leak of the deadly gas from the refinery in September, but caused no known deaths.


#8: Hired a reputable news outlet to spread its propaganda

The oil industry found a brand new way to mislead the public this year. It hired the Los Angeles Times to create an oil propaganda project: a website featuring a video labeled as “fearmongering” by media experts. The site attempts to convince California that our dependence on dirty oil and the pollution it causes is a good thing. Groups like Media Matters and LA Weekly weren’t buying it.


#7: Proposed a very dangerous rail spur

Backyard Blast Zones: Phillips 66’s ridiculous proposal

Phillips 66 proposed a rail spur that could bring mile-long oil trains carrying 2.5 million gallons of toxic crude every day through densely populated areas, the capital and near hundreds of schools throughout the state. If approved, the route could endanger five million Californians living in the blast zone (the estimated area that could be impacted if a train derails and explodes, which happens far too much for comfort). Phillips 66 would like to refine the oil and export — a plan that is resource intensive and doesn’t create any new jobs. No wonder more than 40 public agencies and elected officials in California have written letters of opposition or passed resolutions against the project.


#6: Continued to disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities

One person’s (oil) boom is another person’s (community health) doom

As oil extraction in California expands, so too does the health risk to disadvantaged communities. 1.8 million Californians, 92% of whom are low-income people of color, face a double whammy, living within a mile of an oil or gas wells and living in areas most burdened by pollution. A November lawsuit from youth groups and community organizations alleged that the city of Los Angeles allows oil companies to drill wells near low-income neighborhoods in violation of state environmental laws. Living less than half a mile from active oil extraction is unsafe due to health impacts from toxic chemicals, yet 580,000 Angelenos live within a quarter mile from an active well.


#5: Spilled oil all over our beaches

101 (thousand gallons of oil) along the 101 — Refugio Oil Spill

In May 142,800 U.S. gallons of crude oil poured over California’s coastline when a corroded section of the Plains All American pipeline ruptured in Santa Barbara. The spill coated Santa Barbara area beaches, birds and other wildlife, and tar balls linked to the spill washed up on beaches more than 100 miles away for weeks. Plains All American Pipeline has a record of 175 federal safety and maintenance violations since 2006. The spill resulted in a congressional probe, tighter legislation, demands for punishment and a lawsuit against regulators.


#4: Began an unstoppable (to date) methane leak

State of Emergency: Another sunny day with fossil fuels

A natural gas pipeline started leaking massive amounts of methane in the San Fernando Valley in October — and two months later, it’s still going and officially the worst natural gas leak in California’s history. LA County declared a local state of emergency, as thousands of residents fled their homes over health fears. The leak, which has led to a lawsuit, has spewed out billions of pounds (up to 145,000 pounds per hour) of methane and increased California’s greenhouse gas output by 25 percent — the equivalent of an additional 2.3 million cars by one estimate. The catastrophe is at a scale not seen since the 2010 BP oil spill.

We don’t know what’s worse, the health risks, the fact that methane is 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide, that SoCal Gas took days to inform residents, or that the leak, first detected in October, is “seemingly without end” and could take up to six months to repair.

While the pipeline belongs to a utility and not the oil industry, the leak is a reminder of the dangerous of dirty energy.


#3: Gutted the most progressive piece of climate policy in the nation

What do record levels of lobbying spending afford you? The gutting of a key legislative provision to improve California’s air quality, apparently.

SB 350, a bill sponsored by Senate President pro tem Kevin De León and arguably the most progressive piece of climate legislation in the nation, had three parts: improve energy efficiency, increase renewable energy generation and, most controversial, cut petroleum use over the next 15 years.

Not fond of cutting into profits, Big Oil launched a multimillion dollar deceptive ad campaign and lobbied dollar sign Democrats to oppose the fuel reduction measure.

In the end, money prevailed and the petroleum-reduction measure was removed.

“We could not cut through the multi-million-dollar smokescreen created by a single special-interest with a singular motive and a bottomless war chest,” said de León. “Big Oil might be on the right side of their shareholder reports, but we’re on the right side of history.”


#2: Contaminated water during a drought

The epic, record-breaking California drought is really no big deal, so it was no biggie in 2015 when news broke that, for years, aquifers providing drinking water in Kern County have been at risk of being contaminated by fracking wastewater. Clean Water Action estimates that 2,553 injection wells were illegally permitted to inject into drinking water sources. The state closed a dozen wells in the Central Valley in March to prevent contamination of groundwater, with more closures considered over the course of the year, in a scandal the EPA called “shocking.”


#1: Knowingly mislead the world about climate change

ExxCon: The story of what #ExxonKnew

In one of the most explosive stories of alleged corporate deception in recent memory, an investigation revealed that ExxonMobil’s own research confirmed fossil fuels’ role in global warming in the 1970’s.

Instead of issuing an alarm to the world, company officials publicly cast doubt on the very existence of global warming, arguing that the science was just too murky to draw a conclusion. While not California specific, these lies are arguably the backbone to widespread cultural skepticism on an issue that is about as scientifically contentious as gravity.

The fall-out? A New York state investigation, public outcry, Congressional calls for a federal investigation, a blistering social media campaign, and continued scrutiny as the world comes to terms with this fraud. Oh, and potentially catastrophic climate change. Big oil has finally been outed as the dangerous big brother of big tobacco.