Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 631 to increase civil penalties and enforcement for oil operators who violate the law.

The bill “makes significant reforms to ensure oil operators are held accountable when they violate the law” and increases civil penalties, according to Assemblyman Gregg Hart, of Santa Barbara, who authored the bill.

In addition to increasing possible penalty amounts, the new law allows inspectors or regulators to order a cease-and-desist of specific activities that threaten public health and safety, property or the environment.

Assembly Bill 631 also allows the California Geologic Energy Management Division to refer cases to local prosecutors or the attorney general for more effective enforcement. Regulators also can recover all prosecution and enforcement costs from the owner or operator, as well as costs to plug and abandon a well associated with a violation. 

“The people of Santa Barbara County care deeply about protecting the environment and the natural beauty which we are fortunate enough to enjoy every day,” Santa Barbara County District Attorney John Savrnoch said in a statement about the new law. “AB 631 will provide the DA’s Office with additional tools to help prevent harm to our environment and to hold polluters accountable for the damage they cause.”

Savrnoch’s office includes an environmental unit that, among other things, helped prosecute Plains All-American Pipeline for the 2015 Refugio oil spill. The company was found guilty and ordered to pay a $3.3 million fine.

ProPublica has reported that the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) issued more than $190,000 in civil penalties in 2020, but hasn’t collected a single dollar. Only 11 of 66 enforcement orders have been complied with in the period of 2018 to 2020, according to ProPublica.

“This legislation is important to protect the public from bearing the cost of illegal activities by oil and gas companies,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center.

The full text of Assembly Bill 631 is available on the state’s legislative information website here.