California plans to ban community oil drilling, far from finally

KATHLEEN RONAYNE / Associated Press

Environmental groups have been cautiously optimistic about California Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposal to ban new oil and gas wells within 1,200 feet of schools and homes, but the oil industry and workforce allies warned that the plan will and may raise California energy prices would have political ramifications for the governor.

The ambitious proposal, announced on Thursday, would create the country’s largest buffer zone between wells and community sites, but there is still a long way to go before it becomes official policy in the country’s seventh largest oil-producing state. It would not shut down existing wells within the 975 meter zone, but would subject them to new pollution controls.

The Newsom government pointed to studies showing that living near a drilling site can increase the risk of birth defects, breathing problems, and other health problems. It is estimated that more than 2 million Californians live this distance from wells, primarily in the Los Angeles and Kern counties.

“This is about public health, public safety, clean air, clean water – this is about our children and grandchildren and our future,” said Newsom in Wilmington, a district of Los Angeles with the highest density of wells in the city. “A greener, cleaner, brighter and more resilient future is within our grasp and this is a commitment to move this forward.”

It is the latest in a series of bold proposals from the Democratic governor who has just survived an attempted recall to cease oil and gas production in California, which is having a significant impact on national politics. He has directed state agencies to draw up plans to stop production by 2045 and stop selling new gasoline cars by 2035.

But some environmental groups, especially those representing low-income people and colored communities who are hardest hit by pollution, want him to act faster. They were encouraged by the proposal but would like Newsom to take a more aggressive stance on existing neighborhood drilling.

In a statement, Juan Flores, a community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said the plan “missed the opportunity to ban new permits for existing wells, a key element for our communities”.

On the other hand, the Western States Petroleum Association, an oil and gas lobby group, and the State Building and Construction Trades Council, a union, warned that rule would make California energy less reliable and force the state to buy more oil from others to buy nations and leads to a price increase. In the capital, where the two groups are influential, attempts to cause setbacks have failed in the past.

“I think the people of California will get (Newsoms) attention when prices go through the roof,” said Robbie Hunter, union president. He said the rule was designed by “extreme environmentalists”.

California’s oil industry directly employs approximately 150,000 people, according to the Western States Petroleum Association.

The state will now open a 60-day public comment period, then the rule will be subjected to economic analysis. It will come into force in 2023 at the earliest.

Newsom called California more aggressive than any other state in terms of being near drilling to homes and schools, but the state lags behind its oil and gas producing states. Colorado, Pennsylvania, and even Texas have rules about how close oil wells can be to certain properties. Colorado’s 2,000-foot (nearly 610 meters) setback on new drilling, which was assumed last year, is the country’s toughest rule.

But California’s proposed plan goes further than the environmental group’s target of 2,500 feet (762 meters). A 15-person state-convened panel of experts said, “Studies consistently show evidence of damage at distances of less than 1 kilometer,” which equates to just over 3,200 feet. The panel confirmed that no specific studies were conducted to determine the safest distance between wells and communities.

Existing oil and gas wells falling within this distance need not be closed if the proposal is accepted. However, they would be subject to a host of new, burdensome, and expensive pollution control regulations, including leak detection and response plans, vapor prevention, water sampling, and restrictions on light and sound pollution in the middle of the night.

The rules were proposed by the California Geologic Energy Management Division known as CalGEM, which regulates the state’s oil industry and issues drilling permits. Newsom directed it to focus on health and safety when it took office in 2019, specifically urging the department to consider oil drilling setbacks to protect the health of the community.

CalGEM has long been criticized for dealing too closely with the industry it regulates. Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the state agency for natural resources, admitted that the regulator needs to better enforce oil companies’ compliance with state laws.

There are approximately 18,000 active wells within the 3,200-foot zone, said Lisa Lien-Mager, spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency. Community locations include houses and apartments, preschools and K-12 schools, daycare centers, businesses, and healthcare facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes.

Environmentalists say they will be closely monitoring the process to make sure the final rules protect the people who live near drilling sites and, when the rule goes into effect, state regulators actually enforce them.

“This is an incredibly long-competitive first step towards getting us to stop drilling where people live, work and play, but we’ll see how the regulations end,” said Martha Dina Argüello, General Manager of Doctors for social responsibility, Los Angeles.

California’s environmental secretary, Jared Blumenfeld, said the new pollution control regulations signal to existing drills that “they must invest a lot of time, money and attention to comply”.

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