Friedman Introduces Bill to Hold Oil Drillers Financially Liable for Harm Caused by Their Drilling

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While it has long been known that oil drilling can cause cancer, respiratory illnesses and birth defects, holding oil drillers liable for the illnesses caused by their drilling in safety zones (established as 3,200 feet within areas where people live, work, or attend school) if the company did not use the best technologies to control the pollution has long been a challenge.

Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Burbank) is determined to change that with Assembly Bill 3155. Under AB 3155, oil drillers could face penalties ranging from $250,000 to a $1 million. These penalties can be challenged and rebutted by the drilling companies if the companies can prove the illnesses were caused another way.

AB 3155 builds on scientific evidence proving a direct link between drilling and these maladies. It was this evidence that led Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) to pass SB 1137 in 2022, a first of its kind bill that banned drilling within a 3,200-foot “set-back” zone. SB 1137 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, but to no one’s surprise, oil drillers spent over $20 million to put a referendum overturning SB 1137 on the ballot in November 2024. As such, SB 1137 has been frozen, awaiting this November’s vote.

If AB 3155 becomes law, it would further protect communities by making drillers liable for the harms they cause starting in January 2025. Senator Gonzalez, author of SB 1137, is a principal coauthor of the legislation.

“These are our parents, our brothers, our sisters, our children, and neighbors dying from preventable cancers. Oil drillers that don’t use the best technology to protect communities from toxic leaks need to be accountable to the communities they harm,” said Assemblymember Friedman. “If oil drillers don’t want to invest in the most protective technology to drill, they should face legal accountability to the families they harm.”

Nalleli Cobo, a community activist and founder of People, Not Pozos, (People, Not Wells) grew up 30 feet from a polluting oil well. She developed asthma by age 11 and stage 2 reproductive cancer by age 19. She lost her ability to bear children. At 24, she is now cancer free. Cobo has actually written about similar legislation in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. Protecting community members like Cobo has Assemblymember Friedman determined to see AB 3155 signed into law.

“My experience, like that of others who live in neighborhoods polluted by oil drilling, is a constant reminder that those in power do not value our health and well-being,” Cobo said. “It’s a signal that some communities are expendable, that our lives don’t matter as much as the fossil fuel industry’s profits. The legislation would essentially shift the burden of proof from communities to polluters. If oil drillers choose to continue to ignore the scientific evidence that they’re sickening surrounding communities, then they would assume the risk of significant legal and financial penalties.”

A coalition of 130 public interest groups supported similar legislation last year that was held in the suspense file of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Among those groups were the Central California Environmental Justice Network, California Environmental Justice Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Race Poverty & the Environment, Communities for A Better Environment, CALPIRG, Environment California, Consumer Watchdog, Food and Water Watch, and Sierra Club. 

“Over 2.1 million Californians live within half a mile of oil and gas wells, and that number will continue to increase with the addition of new wells,” said the coalition. “Moreover, environmental impacts disproportionally affect low-income communities of color. One third of all Californians that live near wells live in areas burdened by elevated levels of environmental pollution. 90% of those people are people of color.”

AB 3155 is sponsored by Consumer Watchdog

“If drillers want to drill in unsafe ways, they should be presumed to be accountable for the harm they cause,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “Like the gun industry that is liable for unsafe conduct in the manufacture and distribution of weapons in California, oil drillers that ignore safety standards should be presumptively liable for the illnesses linked to their negligence. AB 3155 reverses the burden from the individual to the driller when drillers ignore safety standards in pursuit of big profits.”

AB 3155 will have its first hearing in April. 

    Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center