California proposes new ban on oil drilling near neighborhoods

KATHLEEN RONAYNE / Associated Press

California’s Oil and Gas Regulatory Agency on Thursday proposed that the state ban new oil drilling within 3,200 feet of schools, homes and hospitals to protect public health in the country’s largest buffer zone between oil wells and communities.

It is the recent attempt by the Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration to halt oil production in California and aligns it with environmentalists who are urging to curb the effects of climate change and to fight the powerful oil industry in the country’s seventh largest oil producing state.

Studies show that living near a drilling site can increase your risk of birth defects, cancer, breathing problems, and other health problems. More than 2 million Californians live within 975 meters of oil wells, mostly low-income and colored people in Los Angeles County and the Central Valley. The proposal would not ban wells already operating in these zones, but would add new pollution controls.

“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.”

This would be the first time California has passed statewide rules on how close drilling can be to homes, schools, and other locations. Other oil and gas producing states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, and even Texas have rules about how close oil wells can be to certain properties. Colorado’s 2,000-foot setback in new drilling, which was assumed last year, is currently the strictest rule in the country.

The California plan, if adopted, would also go beyond the target buffer of 2,500 feet (762 meters). A coalition of environmental justice groups advocating for black, brown and indigenous communities living in heavily polluted areas praised the verdict, but urged Newsom to stop existing neighborhood drilling more aggressively.

“Oil and gas companies have treated our communities as victim zones for over a century,” said Juan Flores, community organizer for the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, in a statement. “The members of the front line spoke with a clear voice and called for an end to the neighborhood drilling.”

The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil and gas advocacy group, described the proposed rules in a statement by President Catherine Reheis-Boyd as an “activist attack on the way of life, the economy and the people of California.”

Reheis-Boyd said the industry is not against local setbacks but does not approve of a nationwide regulation. She said the rules would result in less reliable energy and higher prices in an industry that employs about 150,000 people.

Robbie Hunter of the influential State Building and Construction Trades Council, a union, said the scheme would increase California’s reliance on foreign oil and said the state was “quickly becoming a stranded whale with no ability to meet its own needs.”

Newsom, who recently survived a recall, said the proposal was the latest step in an effort to ensure oil is not part of California’s future. He has directed state aviation authorities to come up with a plan to halt oil and gas production by 2045 and contain demand by banning the sale of new gasoline cars by 2035.

He was joined in Wilmington by state lawmakers who had long urged backlash and doctors to speak about the dangers of the oil spill to people nearby, especially expectant mothers and children.

“I’m sick of my district being called Asthma Alley,” said Senator Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents southeast Los Angeles County.

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. The state received more than 40,000 public comments on the draft rules and convened a 15-member panel of public health experts to investigate the health and safety effects of oil drilling in the neighborhood.

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.

Wells within 3,200 feet of community sites account for about a third of the state’s oil production, Crowfoot said. There are approximately 32,400 holes drilled in this zone, said Erin Mellon, a Newsom spokeswoman. Community locations include houses and apartments, preschools and K-12 schools, daycare centers, businesses, and healthcare facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes.

Existing wells would not shut down but would have to meet many new pollution control measures, including extensive leak detection and response plans, vapor recovery, water sampling, and a reduction in night lighting and dust. They are designed to limit health effects such as asthma and pregnancy complications, and to reduce nuisances such as noise pollution.

Administration officials said they hope the new rules will be onerous enough to make some drills shut down the wells. The operators would be financially responsible for meeting the requirements and would have one to two years to do so.

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

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