The Antidote to Cynicism in Sacramento: Sierra Club Activism

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


SB 1132 Rally SignIt's hard not to be cynical if you pay close attention to state government, particularly as it plays out among elected officials.

Within the last few months, one senator has been convicted of a felony for living outside the district he claimed to live in. Another has been charged with trading influence in exchange for cash, trips to Las Vegas and jobs for his adult children. Both have taken leaves from the Senate while they attend to their legal problems.

Meanwhile, the California Fair Political Practices Commission imposed its largest fine yet—about $133,000--upon a lobbyist who violated campaign finance law by taking a loophole in lobbying rules and creating a hole the size of the Bermuda Triangle.

The law allows lobbyists to entertain elected officials in their own homes without having to report the entertainment as a donation. For most people, entertaining is a nice dinner and some conversation. For the lobbyist at fault, it was a lavish dinner, expensive wine and liquor, fancy flower arrangements and really fine cigars.

Nearly 40 politicians were among those entertained by the lobbyist. The FPPC sent the politicians warning letters noting the problem and closing the case.

Among the companies employing the offending lobbying firm is one called Aera Energy. Sounds kind of like "air" and evokes images of fresh and healthy.

Aera is the sixth largest oil producer in the country, with active drilling sites in the San Joaquin Valley and Ventura County. It is also a regular practitioner of fracking and well stimulation, the extreme extraction methods linked to air pollution, water pollution and even earthquakes in reports from around the country.

A colleague recently reviewed Aera's lobbying finance reports and found that during most years, the company spent about $100,000 a year on influencing the state legislature. In 2013, the company reported spending more than $1 million.

What was so different about 2013? Ten bills addressing fracking were introduced in the legislature and the oil industry was on high alert to kill those bills. Aera was just one of many oil interests that poured funds into legislative lobbying. They especially wanted to do away with any bill that included a moratorium on using extreme extraction methods in California.

Three moratorium bills were introduced in the Assembly in 2013. Only one was released from the appropriations committee, the last stop for many bills before they go to a floor vote. The one moratorium bill that got out of appropriations was seriously weakened, and then failed on the floor.

Did the bill's weakening and failure reflect the power of Aera and other oil interests? Or did failure reflect the problems associated with too many bills and too little time for legislators to consider what's at stake and what the public—their constituents—want?

This year is a new year. This year a coalition that includes the Sierra Club and a range of other environmental and environmental justice organizations is backing a single, reasonable bill to impose a moratorium—a time out—on fracking and other extreme extraction methods until there's proof that these methods will not deliver to California what they've delivered in North Dakota, Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma.

In just the last six months, research and news reports have linked fracking and well stimulation in those states to high levels of water pollution, including detection of endocrine disruptors in water near well sites, air pollution, and earthquakes, not to mention social disruption, and landscape destruction.

So now, with Senate Bill 1132, the legislature has a chance to consider this growing body of research, and the growing concern among Californians about fracking.

Will they do the right thing: Call a time out on fracking and well stimulation?

The cynic might say no. The cynic might look at the oil industry's history of giving and rightly assume that that giving isn't going to decrease this year, in the face of another moratorium bill.

If you're a member of the Sierra Club—and if you're receiving this in your email, there's a strong chance that you are—you're not a cynic. Even if you get discouraged and disgusted by politics, you aren't a cynic. You're an anti-cynic because you belong to an organization that still knows that a combination of persistence and people power can and does overcome money in politics and policy.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll receive alerts from us and other groups calling on you to let the legislature and the governor know that you want a moratorium on fracking and well stimulation in this state. Responding to the call to action will be a strike against cynicism.

When you send a letter or email or make a call to your state senator and assembly member, urging a yes vote on SB 1132, you're doing more than urging that a good bill pass. You're demonstrating that the debate about fracking deserves to be a public debate decided in the public interest.

This debate is too important to leave to private conversations between oil industry representatives and legislators conducted at fundraisers and Capitol-area watering holes. 


Kathryn Phillips

Kathryn Phillips

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