Oil drilling permits approved in California since start of 2019 rises to 14,623 as neighborhood feel the brunt

Photograph by Zbynek Burival

By Dan Bacher

Despite the constantly repeated mantra by California politicians and media talking heads that the state is the nation’s “green leader,” the actual reality on the ground is much different as California regulators continue to approve thousands of oil well drilling permits every year.

The total number of oil drilling permits approved since Governor Gavin Newsom took office in Jan. 2019 soared to 14,623 in the first quarter of 2023, the FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog revealed in an analysis that was just released.

The two groups track and map new well approvals at the site www.NewsomWellWatch.com.

Representatives of the organizations and many others belonging to the Last Chance Alliance condemned the approval of 897 oil well permits—particularly the 62% of approvals in the first quarter for oil operations within 3,200 feet of marginalized communities.

“Is Governor Newsom a climate leader?” questioned Kobi Naseck, Coalition Coordinator, Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhood. “Since January 1st, the administration has approved 897 permits to drill, the majority of them in the proposed health and safety buffer zone. In other words, in our neighborhoods. Climate leaders don’t do that.”

Ilonka Zlatar, Climate Justice Organizer at Oil & Gas Action Network, agreed.

“Seeing Newsom pushing for accountability from Big Oil is a great step in the right direction, but it doesn’t mean much if his administration continues to entrench California in fossil fuel pollution,” Zlatar stressed. “We need real climate leadership. Newsom must tell his agency to deny drilling permits in the health and safety buffer to protect Californians from health impacts and from the climate crisis.”  

Marjaneh Moini, MD, a board member for Physicians for Social Responsibility, is adding to that choir — and argues that there is racism that lies under the veneer of California’s carefully cultivated “green” and “progressive” reputation.

“The Governor’s appointed regulators know how harmful oil and gas drilling near homes, schools, and day care facilities, but they continue to rubber stamp their permits,” Moini noted. “Not only have historical discriminatory housing policies trapped communities of color and low-income communities in over polluted neighborhoods, a new study shows that in California, black residents are exposed to the most intense oil and gas operations.”

The doctor ended with, “By approving permits near homes, schools and daycare facilities in overburdened communities; the Governor’s regulators are perpetuating environmental racism, continuing policies that exacerbate the health disparity gap and environmental injustice in our state. This has to stop.”

Some 7.4 million Californians—nearly one in five—currently live within a mile of an active well, according to Consumer Watchdog and Fracktracker Alliance. Risk of harm from chronic exposure to toxic emissions from wells has been documented among residents who live up to 6.2 miles from a well.

“The California Geologic Energy Management Division still has not gotten the memo that allowing any increased oil extraction within one kilometer of communities is not acceptable,” said Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate. “The oil industry had the audacity to challenge a state law establishing that health protective setback by qualifying a referendum to overturn it. Shame on CalGEM for not following through to protect communities despite that nefarious effort.”

“FracTracker’s analyses have shown that prioritizing the health of marginalized communities by keeping oil and gas operations outside of health protection zones will have a minimal effect on statewide oil production,” said FracTracker Coordinator Kyle Ferrar. “Yet, CalGEM continues to bend to the whim of the oil and gas industry, We applaud the administration for taking a stand against new drilling by awarding only one new drilling permit this quarter, but the large number of permits for work on existing wells also harm the health of frontline communities.”

An analysis show that 62% of 897 oil drilling permits approved in first quarter are in setback zones

During the first quarter of 2023, Ferrar said CalGEM approved a total of 897 permits throughout the state, a 40% uptick over the first quarter of 2022. All but one for new drilling were for work on existing wells, including fixing, deepening, and redrilling them. Permits for work on existing wells rose 76% over the same period last year. 

“In the first quarter, 62% of all the permits approved in the setback zone—totaling 556—were primarily to repair or redirect drilling in existing wells to more productive geologic formations,” he added.

Ferrar also pointed out that, “An independent scientific advisory panel had advised CalGEM that a 3,200-foot setback—or one kilometer–between homes, schools, daycares, hospitals, and other sensitive receptors was the minimum distance to protect public health.”

Nevertheless, Californian women living within 6.2 miles of at least one oil or gas well during pregnancy have an increased risk of low-birthweight babies.  Proximity to active oil operations increases the risk of premature birth by 40% and the chances of a high-risk pregnancy by 30%.

California is the only major oil-producer other than Alaska that currently lacks health and safety setbacks when other extraction states including North Dakota, Colorado and even Texas have instituted minimum setbacks.

Set to go into effect in January 2023, the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) sponsored the referendum that has delayed the implementation of the setbacks law for two years. Filings with the California Secretary of State reveal that oil companies funneled over $20 million  to The Committee Stop the Energy Shutdown, a “Coalition Of Small Business Owners, Concerned Taxpayers, Local Energy Producers And The California Independent Petroleum Association.”

California advocacy groups are now demanding that the state regulate how petition signature collection is conducted, due to fears that signatures were obtained on false and misleading pretenses.

Environmental justice advocates explained that the oil industry applies for more permits to fix (rework wells) than it does for new ones because it takes a shorter amount of time to obtain these permits. 

“The trends of permitting rates … shows an enormous jump in oil permit applications in September 2022, right after SB 1137 passed, and another big jump in December, right before the law went into effect,” explained Ferrar. “In January, when SB 1137 had the force of law, permits applications fell sharply. At the start of February when the referendum to overturn the law qualified, permit applications zoomed up again.”

He added, “In January, the oil industry understood that the law was in effect. After the referendum qualified, they understood that they could freely apply for permits once again. The oil industry figured they had it in the bag and business as usual could proceed because the referendum’s qualifying for the ballot technically paused the setback law.”

However, CalGEM’s treatment of applications to perform hydraulic fracturing (fracking) differs sharply from their treatment of applications for oil drilling and other operations within the setback zone, according to the groups.

Governor Newsom banned fracking as of January 1, 2024 with an executive order issued in April 2021, but CalGEM has not approved any more fracking permits since December 1, 2021.

“It is a mystery why the Administration took a stance against permitting new fracking and CalGEM has backed that up, but CalGEM continues to approve oil permits near marginalized communities when both the Governor and the legislature backed the creation of a setback on the grounds of protecting public health and the environment,” obersved Tucker. “Certainly, the Governor and CalGEM have the authority to enforce the setback on the same grounds.”

Kayla Karimi, a staff attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, thinks it reflects poorly on Newsom’s political claims.

“In public, Governor Newsom presents himself as an environmental champion, supporting legislation to create setbacks and penalties for the oil and gas industry when their profits are too high,” Karimi said. “Meanwhile, he quietly allows CalGEM, an agency under his authority, to approve permits to drill, most of them within the setback zone. 897 permits and counting is not an oversight; it is a policy decision.” 

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