By Dan Bacher
As birds, fish and other wildlife die from the over 126,000 gallons of crude oil unleashed by the devastating oil spill off Huntington Beach, the oil and gas regulatory agency under Governor Gavin Newsom has issued 138 oil permits for operations in state waters since he assumed office, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance revealed on October 4.
And while “marine protected areas” created under the leadership of a Big Oil lobbyists are currently threatened by the massive oil spill, the two groups said the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) is 278 days late in delivering Newsom a rule setting a barrier between oil operations and vulnerable communities.
Also on Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency in Orange County to support the emergency response to the oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach that originated in federal waters.
“The state is moving to cut red tape and mobilize all available resources to protect public health and the environment,” said Governor Newsom in a press conference. “As California continues to lead the nation in phasing out fossil fuels and combating the climate crisis, this incident serves as a reminder of the enormous cost fossil fuels have on our communities and the environment.”
However, opponents of offshore drilling and supporters of environmental justice pointed out that Newsom’s plan to “mobilize all available resources to protect public health and the environment” doesn’t include stopping the approval of offshore oil well permits nor creating health and safety setbacks between homes and schools like other oil and gas drilling states mandate.
“This current spill makes it clear like never before that there is no such thing as safe proximity to oil drilling,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker in a statement. “Governor Newsom must stop issuing both offshore and onshore permits immediately and set a barrier of 2,500 feet between vulnerable communities and oil operations if his own oil and gas supervisor won’t.”
Tucker said the state banned the dispensing of new oil drilling leases in state waters up to two miles from shore in 1969 after the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill.
“But new drilling and other work on wells in existing leases in state waters was never banned. Though advocates urged Jerry Brown to halt this practice, he never did. Neither has Newsom,” said Tucker.
“Governor Newsom has issued 138 permits for wells located offshore,” according to Kyle Ferrar, Western program coordinator for the FracTracker Alliance. “This includes five new drilling permits and 133 permits to perform work on existing offshore wells. The oil industry often does this work to address the risks of aging oil and gas wells and infrastructure rather than shut these operations down and clean them up—which is what we should be doing.”
Here is how the 138 permits break down:
• California oil regulators issued 125 permits to rework wells plus five permits to drill new wells to THUMS Long Beach Co., a subsidiary of California Resources Corporation, according to Ferrar.
• Another five permits were issued to the State Lands Commission, likely related to the decommissioning of Platform Holly in waters off Santa Barbara.
• Three other permits were issued to California Resources Production Corporation to work on wells located on Orange County offshore oil rigs. Two of the wells were located on platform Emmy, and the third on platform Esther. The platforms are located from a mile to a mile and a half from California shores.
At the same time, the groups noted that in 2020, Newsom gave his top oil regulator, Uduak-Joe Ntuk, a deadline of December 31, 2020 to create a setback between oil drilling operations and vulnerable communities. Ntuk had not responded to Newsom’s first request for a setback rule made at the end of 2019.
“When Ntuk did not meet the hard 2020 deadline, the Governor did nothing despite months of public comment overwhelmingly in favor of a setback to the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) that Uduak heads and a panel CalGEM has at its disposal of chosen independent scientists and health experts,” the groups stated.
“Oil & Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk has blown it,” said Tucker. “He is now 278 days late and the fact that no rule has been proposed on a setback and Gov. Newsom has not used his executive authority to mandate one to protect public health is outrageous.”
She said frontline communities and environmental advocates are demanding a setback of 2,500 feet between frontline communities and oil drilling operations. Based on peer-reviewed studies, a setback of twice that distance—at least one mile—is warranted to decrease risk of cancer, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and neurological diseases, as well as preterm births, low birth weights, and birth defects.
”So far, Newsom has issued more than 9,000 oil drilling permits since he took office at the start of 2019. Roughly ten percent of permits issued are for wells too close to communities. More than two million Californians live within a half mile of a well, while seven million live within a mile,” Tucker concluded.