By Dan Bacher
After years of grassroots organizing, protests and political pressure by environmental justice advocates, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced at a press conference on October 21 that the Department of Conservation’s Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, has released a proposed regulation that would prohibit new oil wells and facilities within a 3,200-foot “exclusion area” – or setback – from homes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other sensitive locations.
The draft rule would also require pollution controls for existing wells and facilities within the same 3,200-foot setback area.
Until this announcement, California, unlike most other oil and gas drilling states, required no health and safety setbacks between homes, schools, day care centers, hospitals and other facilities. This setback is 700 feet more than the distance initially requested by environmental advocates.
“Our reliance on fossil fuels has resulted in more kids getting asthma, more children born with birth defects, and more communities exposed to toxic, dangerous chemicals,” said Governor Newsom. “California is taking a significant step to protect the more than two million residents who live within a half-mile of oil drilling sites, many in low-income and communities of color, We are committed to protecting public health, the economy and our environment as we transition to a greener future that reckons with the realities of the climate crisis we’re all facing.”
“We don’t see oil in our future. We don’t,” noted Newsom at the press conference.
Over 2 million Californians live within a half-mile of oil drilling sites, leading to birth defects, asthma, health risks for kids and more, according to the Governor’s Office. By moving to keep new oil wells away from communities, California is “prioritizing the health and safety of Californians.”
A 15-member public health expert panel selected by University of California, Berkeley and Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers, or PSE, for Healthy Energy helped inform the draft rule announced on Thursday,
““The panel concluded that when oil and gas developments are within 3,200 feet, there is a strong connection to higher rates of adverse birth outcomes, respiratory diseases such as asthma, and heart disease, among other health impacts. The panel’s research supports both moving oil production farther away from communities in combination with pollution controls for operating wells,” according to the Governor’s Office.
Climate and environmental justice advocates praised the release of the draft setbacks rule but called on Newsom to stop issuing new oil and gas permits. The Western States Petroleum Association, the trade association for the oil industry in the West, condemned it, claiming that the decision “was not based on what is best for Californians or science.”
Despite the constant portrayal of California by the state’s politicians as the nation’s “green” and “progressive” leader, the Newsom Administration has issued 9,728 oil drilling permits since Newsom assumed office in 2019, according to a new analysis of permits approved through October 1, 2021and posted at www.NewsomWellWatch.org by Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance.
In addition to the nearly 10,000 onshore oil and gas wells approved by Newsom’s oil and gas regulators, there have been a total of 150 reported permits issued for offshore wells since January 1, 2019. Five of these permits were for new drilling and the remaining 145 for reworks (including sidetracks and deepening operations).
Newsom’s announcement comes just days before he is set to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, from November 1-3, 2021, said Food & Water Watch California Director Alexandra Nagy, noting that frontline communities have waited two years for the promised health and safety rule from CalGEM.
“Governor Newsom’s announcement is a victory for communities on the frontlines of drilling who suffer the daily health impacts of proximity to fossil fuel extraction,” said Nagy. “3,200 foot buffer zones between sensitive community sites and drill locations are a vital step in protecting Californians from the pollution and emissions of fossil fuels. But we know that there is only one way for Governor Newsom to truly protect Californians from the public health and environmental crises caused by fossil fuels: stop issuing oil and gas permits immediately.”
Environmental justice advocates and scientists say neighborhood oil and gas drilling endangers the health of the more than 2.5 million people, mostly Black, Latino and Asian immigrant communities who live within 2,500 feet of oil and gas extraction sites.
In the last two years alone, 630 new and rework permits have been granted for oil and gas sites in neighborhoods, the VISION coalition noted. The coalition commended Newsom for announcing the “historic” and “momentous” 3,200 ft setback for public health, but urged Governor Newsom to close loopholes and phase out existing drilling.
“The draft rule promises to set into motion a directive made by Governor Newsom almost two years ago to take action on the issue of neighborhood oil and gas extraction. While environmental justice advocates await details of the full draft rule, the coalition celebrated the historic buffer zone distance while urging the Newsom administration to strengthen the rule,” VISION stated in a news release.
“Wilmington residents have lived with the dangerous health impacts of oil drilling for far too long,” said Wendy Miranda, Wilmington Community Member, Communities for a Better Environment. “The Governor’s announcement regarding the CALGEM rulemaking shows us that the Newsom administration is listening to us. But now we need them to strengthen this rule and make it law. Countless frontline environmental justice communities have been waiting for this rule and we look forward to engaging in the process to ensure that workers and communities are protected as this rule is finalized.”
Advocates pointed out that the draft rule on oil and gas extraction was announced just one month after the decisive defeat of a right-wing recall campaign and just weeks after Newsom appeared at an oil-fouled beach in Orange County proclaiming California’s commitment to securing “a livable future and just transition.”
“Today’s announcement represents years of work by environmental justice advocates to put public health first after over a century of putting oil company profits over health and safety,” said Martha Dina Arguello, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. “Governor Newsom and his administration need to take a science-based approach and listen to frontline residents – mostly low-income Black and Latino families – whose health has suffered the assault of living next to oil wells for years.”
“We know there is no safe distance for oil and gas drilling, but until we phase out all drilling our communities will continue to be at risk from day-to-day operations and the continuous threat of catastrophic accidents like we saw in Orange County. We look forward to reviewing the regulations and working towards a healthy and equitable transition,” stated Arguello.
Proximity to oil production sites increases exposure to toxic chemicals and byproducts of California’s industrial oil operations that take place just feet away from homes, schools, parks, hospitals, daycare centers and other facilities, according to VISION.
“Science has confirmed the need for a 3,200 ft setback for communities living close to oil and gas,” said Nayamin Martinez, Executive Director of Central California Environmental Justice Network. “Residents of environmental justice communities in Kern County, like those living in Lamont, Arvin, Lost Hills who have for decades been suffocated with dangerous gases from the oil facilities surrounding their homes, are finally receiving good news. Today’s decision is promising – but we need to demonstrate the first step towards health is as important as the profits of the oil companies that are cozy with Kern County politicians.”
Juan Flores, community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, pointed out that “oil and gas companies have been treating our communities as sacrifice zones for over a century.”
“This industry has elevated its own profits above the health, well-being, and lives of primarily BIPOC and low-income communities,” said Flores. “Frontline community members have spoken in a clear voice, demanding an end to neighborhood drilling. Today, Governor Newsom and CalGEM have announced a health and safety setback of 3200 feet, a strong step in the right direction. However, this draft rule misses the chance to prohibit new permits for existing wells, a key element for our communities. We look forward to working with the administration to close this loophole and quickly move to protect our communities at long last.”
“For decades the San Joaquin Valley has seen epidemic levels of sickness from being one of the nation’s most polluted air basins for fine particle (PM2.5) and ozone pollution,” added Catherine Garoupa-White with the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. “Oil and gas operations emit toxic air pollutants including PM2.5, a major contributor to serious cases of COVID-19, and are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Today’s draft rule is a crucial first step in a continuing battle to protect everyone, especially frontline communities, from the worst of oil and gas byproducts. Health and safety buffers will combat climate change and improve air quality, protecting the right to breathe clean air. We call on the Newsom administration to strengthen the rule and demand rework permits be included in the final rule.”
“After years of delay, we are encouraged by this announcement from the Newsom administration, which sends a strong signal that oil and gas has no place in neighborhoods,” said Neena Mohan, Climate Justice Manager with the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “We’re ready to carry this rule home and make sure it actually accomplishes what we need it to accomplish: the end of neighborhood oil and gas drilling. If the final rule doesn’t do that, then it’s not enough. Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian immigrant communities deserve neighborhoods free from air, water and soil pollution. We know today’s announcement of 3,2000 ft setbacks for frontline communities is just a first, critical step. Oil and gas executives won’t let neighborhood oil drilling end without a fight — and we’ll keep fighting for working people until every person’s right to clean air in every neighborhood is guaranteed.”
Consumer Watchdog called Governor Newsom’s draft rule creating a 3200-foot setback between oil wells and communities a “historic moment for California and the nation, but one that needs to followed with immediate denial of oil and gas permits as part of a full phase out plan for drilling in this state no later than 2030.”
“California’s oil boom went bust a long time ago and the oil that is left is dirty crude oil that is energy-intensive to refine,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. ‘’Oil refineries that make our gasoline in California run on a majority of crude oil from OPEC and South America that is lighter and less energy intensive to refine. It’s a no brainer to stop oil companies from drilling that poisons communities.”
“Next, we need a plan to stop all existing drilling in the state and plug those wells. The fact that offshore drilling permits are still being renewed by the state of California after the recent Orange County oil spill is a sign that much more needs to be done to protect the public and our land. Governor Newsom took a big historic step today, but he now needs to follow Los Angeles County’s lead in phasing out all oil drilling in a reasonable time,” Court concluded.
“Newsom’s proposed setback is tougher than anywhere else in the nation and we commend him,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker. “This sets a precedent for the nation and blows past the 2,000-foot setback Colorado put in place. We need to make sure the rule is airtight and does not allow oil companies to continue to rework wells in frontline communities. The rule does not ban permits to rework–meaning essentially re-drill— wells near communities and that process is dangerous. That means more community exposure to dangerous emissions that come with drilling.”
View the well permits on a California map approved by Newsom, including video of leaking well emissions, at www.NewsomWellWatch.org. Read more about the last analysis of Newsom Administration well approvals here: https://www.consumerwatchdog.org/energy/ca-dangerously-close-approving-10000-oil-drilling-permits-newsom-assumed-office-groups
On the other hand, Western States Petroleum Association President and CEO Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the former Chair of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create “marine protected areas” in Southern California, issued a statement blasting Governor Newsom’s proposed setbacks rule:
“Just a few weeks ago, President Biden asked the OPEC nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Venezuela, specifically to produce more oil in order to bring energy costs down and ensure reliability. Today, Governor Newsom took an opposing path and proposed a setback regulation that could lead to increased costs and reduce the reliability of our energy supply. His decision was not based on what is best for Californians or science.
“The proposed rule’s true setbacks will be imposed upon California’s families, workers and businesses that need affordable, reliable energy every day. This was not a scientific process, as facts do not support the recommendation, nor were dissenting voices or industry experts even allowed to provide input to the panel. It’s time we call these series of actions, bans, rules and mandates what they are: an activist assault on California’s way of life, economy and people.
“The oil and gas industry is not opposed to setbacks and in fact, has supported many local setbacks that are based on science, data and rigorous health assessments. But this approach by the state will eliminate tax revenues and community benefits, raise costs for everyone and put thousands of people out of work.
“While we are disappointed that the governor continues to lead through fear and division, we will trust and work with the California we know, a citizenry that dismisses the pessimism of bans and mandates and believes that by working together we can create a future that balances the needs of people, environment, energy and equity. Despite what may come from this administration, we will continue to apply research, hard work, investment and the innovative power people working together to solve the big issues of our day.”
IWSPA may sue over the setback rule, as they have already done against what Reheis-Boyd described as “a defacto moratorium” on well stimulation (fracking) permits in California by the Gavin Newsom Administration: https://www.dailykos.com/story/2021/10/8/2057022/-Western-States-Petroleum-Association-launches-lawsuit-against-defacto-moratorium-on-fracking-in-CA
WSPA, the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in California, spent a total of $4,267,181 lobbying state officials in 2020 and $8.8 million in 2019: https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/02/17/big-oil-spent-10-million-lobbying-california-officials-in-2020/