By Thomas D. Elias
It’s up to Gov. Gavin Newsom, but if he signs a last- minute bill just passed by the state Legislature, California will be sending conflicting messages to big oil companies about lying and gasoline price gouging.
That’s because of two moves in Sacramento on consecutive days as the 2023 legislative session ended in mid-September.
In one, state Attorney General Rob Bonta, who badly wants to succeed Newsom as governor, noisily filed a biggest-in-the-nation lawsuit accusing Big Oil of lying for more than half a century about the environmental danger of fossil fuels.
In the other, the Legislature, with zero fanfare and no public hearings passed a bill designed to make it harder for the state to act on its new law that supposedly aims to stop the oil companies from artificially and deliberately staging events that raise the pump price of gasoline.
“California is delivering on our promise to hold Big Oil accountable (for price gouging),” Newsom said in June when he signed that new law.
But if he also signs the just-passed bill numbered SB 842, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Steven Bradford of southwestern Los Angeles County, home to several large oil refineries, he will be reneging on that promise.
Bradford employed the Legislature’s often-abused last-minute gut-and-amend procedure to revive an unrelated, moribund bill and substitute in it language that would hamstring the state’s ability to prevent the unneeded, unscheduled refinery “maintenance” shutdowns that oil companies often use as excuses for sudden, large pump price increases.
Most recently, such shutdowns were their excuse last February, when prices rose by more than $2 a gallon almost overnight in a move that produced record oil company profits, but was described by Newsom as “fleecing California families.”
The June law has a new wing of the state Energy Commission forcing oil companies to report maintenance shutdowns in advance.
The current bill now on Newsom’s desk softens that by saying the agency must “consult with labor and industry stakeholders and aim to avoid any adverse impacts to the safety of employees and surrounding communities, labor and equipment availability, other market impacts, and cost.”
That would make fast action against sudden gas price spikes almost impossible, especially since there is no list of “stakeholders” to consult. Essentially, this sneak-attack bill would disable the state’s power to help consumers quickly. Again, there were no public hearings and thus no evidence anyone has been endangered by the June law or that the newer measure is needed. If Newsom signs it, he would counteract the aims he declared in June.
Even as this legislative effort at cozying up to Big Oil proceeded, Bonta was readying his lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, Conoco Phillips and British Petroleum.
One difference is that the legislative effort proceeded essentially in secret, while Bonta’s ballyhooed lawsuit made headlines. But it’s obvious grandstanding.
If the lawsuit really goes forward, it will be years before oil companies pay any penalty for what Bonta says is lying since the 1950s about the fact that “burning fossil fuels leads to climate change.” This lawsuit will cost the companies little to defend, since they routinely maintain platoons of lawyers. It’s also a transparent move to help set up Bonta’s run for governor, likely to begin in early 2025.
So the so-called “progressive” Democrats who currently run Sacramento spoke from both sides of their mouths, accusing the oil companies of lying on climate change while simultaneously attempting to ease their longtime practice of lying about price gouging.
Said Jamie Court, president of the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, “With gasoline prices spiking in California right now, this is no time to weaken a price gouging law that has barely taken effect.” He added that Newsom should veto “this attack on his gasoline price gouging law.”
Court is right, but the quiet effort to help Big Oil gouge passed the Legislature by wide, bi-partisan margins.
Which leaves things up to Newsom. If he signs this bill, it will mean that despite loud voices like Bonta’s, there is actually no significant force in Sacramento willing to stand up against Big Oil and its frequent gouging tactics.