Jane Fonda vs. Big OilThe actress and activist on her mission to stop oil companies from drilling near communities in California.

I ’m never moving again. It feels so good to say that! I was born in New York, and since then I’ve lived all over the country—in Atlanta, Montana, New Mexico—and that doesn’t include all the places I’ve lived temporarily on movie sets in the U.S. and around the world. But after I bought my current house in Los Angeles a few years ago, I made the choice to put down roots here and was surprised to find a real comfort in the idea that this is where I am going to live until I die. California is my home.

jane fonda center with california governor gavin newsom at right and former california governor arnold schwarzenegger

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Jane Fonda, center, with California governor Gavin Newsom, right, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, at a March 22 press conference in the Ladera Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles near the Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban drill site in the U.S.

California is an incredibly diverse and culturally rich place, but one that has already been impacted profoundly by the climate crisis, with the unprecedented (and near-apocalyptic) fires, floods, storms, and weather we’ve experienced in recent years. It is also among the top oil-producing states in the country. Because of the amount of drilling that happens here, almost three million Californians live near oil wells—a disproportionate number of them people of color. The pollution created by those wells affects air quality and can cause birth defects, heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and aggressive cancers. The oil industry refers to the areas near wells as “sacrifice zones”—as if there were an acceptable human or environmental cost associated with drilling for oil.

The OIL INDUSTRY refers to the areas near wells as “SACRIFICE ZONES.”

The people in these communities have been fighting back, though, by seeking restrictions on drilling and pushing for legislation to safeguard their health and well-being. In 2022, California governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Senate Bill 1137, which demanded that the wells inside or near areas where people live be made safe and issued a ban on new wells being drilled within 3,200 feet of communities. It created the single largest health and safety buffer against Big Oil in any oil-producing state in the country.

However, as soon as the bill was signed, the oil companies began trying to overturn it. They spent tens of millions of dollars campaigning and gathering signatures for a referendum, which will be on the ballot in this November’s election. It’s an egregious attack on both democracy and people’s health—and one that I and many other Californians are intent on stopping.

a rig on the inglewood oil field

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A rig on the Inglewood Oil Field.

In March, I participated in a press conference alongside Governor Newsom, a Democrat, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. We gathered in L.A. at a soccer field in Ladera Heights near the Inglewood Oil Field, which is the nation’s largest urban drill site. If you’ve ever flown into LAX, you may have noticed the Inglewood Oil Field on your way into town and wondered, Are those actual wells? Unbelievably, yes, they are.

This isn’t my first ATTEMPT at partnering with DAVID in a BATTLE against a GOLIATH.

Our press conference was a show of unity in this effort to do what’s right for California and its citizens. The world feels so divided, but Governor Newsom went to great lengths in his remarks to stress that public health shouldn’t be a partisan issue. He recalled how President Richard Nixon, a Republican former congressman and senator from California, helped create the Environmental Protection Agency and pass the Clean Air Act of 1970, while another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, helped establish the California Air Resources Board in the late 1960s, while he was still governor of California. Californians, he added, have already seen what happens when we don’t respect Mother Nature. “You have to believe your own eyes,” Governor Newsom said. “This planet is heating up. It’s choking up. It’s burning up. We have simultaneous droughts and rain bombs happening over and over and over again—lifestyles, places, traditions being completely eliminated.”

jane fonda speaking at the press conference

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Fonda speaking at the press conference.

I’ve been a climate activist for years, so this isn’t my first attempt at partnering with David in a battle against a Goliath. But it is the first time I’ve had a Terminator on my side. Former governor Schwarzenegger—or Arnold, as I call him—reminds me of one of those Republicans of the past who weren’t afraid to go against their party when it meant upholding their core values. He believes in protecting the environment and people’s health. From the lectern, he invited oil-company executives to try living within 3,200 feet of an oil well. (He offered that his office had conducted some research, and—big surprise—none of them currently do.) “They’re coming back with the same trick and the same dialog. There will be no difference,” Arnold said. “They will be terminated again.”

BIG OIL has deep POCKETS. But our PLAN is to come out SWINGING.

I also had the privilege of introducing Nalleli Cobo, a 23-year-old environmental activist who grew up just 30 feet away from the oil wells in South Central Los Angeles. Nalleli, who began protesting the drilling as a preteen, recalled the devastating effect that living near those wells had on her life and health: As a nine-year-old, she was forced to sleep sitting up so she wouldn’t drown in her own blood from severe nosebleeds; at 19, she was diagnosed with reproductive cancer that required a hysterectomy. But Nalleli campaigned to get that rig near her family’s home shut down—and succeeded. “Clean air is a basic and fundamental human right that has been denied to us,” she said. “The oil industry has no place in our backyards, in our democracy, or in our future. Let us prove to the oil industry that they do not have that power.”

jane fonda with california governor gavin newsom

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Fonda and Newsom.

We’ve got our work cut out for us. Big Oil has deep pockets. But our plan is to come out swinging with some big names and big money of our own. On May 17, we’re collaborating with Christie’s and the famed gallerist Larry Gagosian on a special auction in New York to raise money for the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California (cavsbigoil.com). The auction will include pieces by Catherine Opie, Charles Gaines, Mark Grotjahn, Alex Israel, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Christina Quarles, and a host of other artists who have graciously given us their work and support. Of course, I can’t say I have a favorite, but I do love what my old friend Ed Ruscha donated, one of his famous word paintings, Ups and Downs, featuring a snowcapped mountain and an abstract silhouette. I’ve been so moved by the generosity of these artists—and I’m hoping bidders who care about the future of the planet will be too.

THERE’S no way I could be an ACTOR right NOW with so much at STAKE.

This year’s presidential election is a truly existential one. The person who next leads our country will play a pivotal role in determining how livable and equitable the future is for all of us. That’s true of all the individuals who are running for public office this fall, when many of the rights, principles, and ideas that we hold dear are also on ballots across the nation. There’s no way I could be an actor right now with so much at stake.

jane fonda

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If you had told me 10 years ago that in 2024 I’d be standing between current Democratic governor Newsom and former Republican governor Schwarzenegger, working together to stop oil companies from drilling next to where people live, I’d have said you were delusional. Governors in California don’t stand up to Big Oil. But times have changed.

We must show PEOPLE that we can still work and stand TOGETHER in pursuit of a common CAUSE.

If the oil companies win in a blue state like California, then people in frontline communities around the country will continue to suffer and this strategy of trying to undermine their will and welfare will go national. (Similar efforts by the oil companies are already underway in Pennsylvania and Colorado.) We must show people in these states that we can still work and stand together in pursuit of a common cause to address our most crucial issues, like the climate crisis and environmental justice—and, most importantly, that people everywhere deserve to breathe freely and feel safe in their communities.

a couple of women walking

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Hair: Jonathan Hanousek, Makeup: David De Leon for for Sisley Paris


A version of this article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.