State Regulators Quietly Issue Fracking Permits Under Cover of COVID-19 Just Before Deadline for Community Input on Public Health Rulemaking

SACRAMENTO —Californians from across the state emailed over 40,000 comments and made comments in-person and online at town halls before state oil regulators closed the window for public comment on a preliminary rulemaking process yesterday to strengthen health and safety protections for communities living near oil and gas operations.

Governor Gavin Newsom directed the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) last November to undertake a rule-making process that better reflects its newly strengthened mission to protect public health and the environment.

In public comments, many Californians urged the Governor and CalGEM to address the urgent crisis facing over five million people who live closest to oil extraction, disproportionately impacting communities of color who already suffer from some of the highest concentrations of environmental pollution in the state. Comments called on Governor Newsom to roll out mandatory 2,500-foot health and safety buffer requirements between fossil-fuel infrastructure and homes, schools, and other sensitive sites statewide. California has long produced some of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive crude oil in the world, with operations taking place dangerously close to homes, schools, hospitals and other sensitive sites. Proximity to oil development causes health effects such as headaches, upper respiratory illness, nausea, nosebleeds, preterm births, increased cancer risk and infertility.

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic targets the human respiratory system, data shows that susceptibility to the virus and its worst outcomes is exacerbated by air pollution, making the pandemic disproportionately deadly to Black and Latinx communities who are more likely to live near fossil fuel infrastructure and experience a disproportionate burden of air pollution in their neighborhoods.

“We stand with communities calling on Governor Newsom to reconsider this dangerous decision,” said Marj Plumb, Interim Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action. “Air pollution from fracking increases the risk of COVID-19 and breast cancer. Sheltering-in-place cannot protect us from the health harms of expanding oil and gas extraction.”

“Tens of thousands of Californians have sent a clear message to Governor Newsom: Keep toxic oil drilling away from places our families live, work and play. It’s unacceptable that California communities are exposed to toxic pollution, with Black and Latino communities disproportionately bearing the burden,” said Lauren Cullum, policy advocate with Sierra Club. “Now CalGEM must take the message to heart. It’s time to create rules that protect everyone from oil drilling’s dangerous impacts.”

“Although COVID-19 brought the world to a halt in early 2020, new oil well permits issued by CalGEM increased by 7% as compared to the first quarter of 2019,” said Tara Messing, Staff Attorney at the Environmental Defense Center. “Increased oversight of risky oil and gas production, like steam injection, is imperative as we phase out our dependence on fossil fuels and focus on clean energy sources. CalGEM must act with urgency to put rules in place that protect communities disproportionately affected by oil and gas development.”

The deadline to submit comments to CalGEM on public health rulemaking comes just days after the agency issued 12 new fracking permits for Aera Energy to expand extreme extraction operations in the Central Valley, where air pollution caused in part by oil and gas pollution is among the worst in the nation. The agency issued a dozen other fracking permits in April after a nine-month moratorium. Governor Newsom said during his campaign that he was sympathetic to banning fracking but has not done so.

“Last week, Governor Newsom spoke forcefully about the need to fight systemic racism in California. It is time for him to turn those words into action,” said Greenpeace USA Senior Climate Campaigner Caroline Henderson. “Governor Newsom must end the practice of treating California’s Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities as ‘sacrifice zones,’ starting by rejecting permits for deadly, destructive drilling and instead chart our state’s course toward a healthy, livable future where we can all thrive.”

“Governor Newsom instructed oil and gas regulators to ensure public health is their priority. They asked for public input, and over 40,000 people gave testimony – scientists, doctors, nurses, community leaders, parents, workers and more. The facts are clear: we must immediately stop toxic oil drilling within 2500′ of homes and schools, and begin a Just Transition to phase out fossil fuels and make reparations to the legacy of environmental injustice” said Matt Leonard from the global climate justice campaign

“The science is clear and very compelling: California must stop issuing fracking permits and stop burning fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas as soon as possible to avoid economic and existential threats from extreme weather,” said Ellie Cohen, CEO of The Climate Center. “These threats would be far greater than what we’ve experienced from the Covid pandemic. If this weren’t reason enough, the suffering of those who live and work near fracking facilities is enough to break your heart. California has got to act for justice, for our health, and for the future of our children and all life.”

“”Many people are shocked to learn that California is the nation’s only major oil-producing state without setback limits. In many places, oil extraction is taking place literally next door to homes, schools and playgrounds, predominantly in communities of color and low-income communities,” pointed out Linda Hutchins-Knowles from Mothers Out Front. “As mothers and others who love children, we say that This. Must. Stop. Now. It is a threat to our children’s and our communities’ health and safety, as well as a threat to our rapidly destabilizing climate. It’s past time for CalGEM to step up and carry out its duty to protect Californians, especially the most vulnerable, from the dangerous side effects of fossil-fuel extraction by imposing a 2500′ health-and-safety buffer zone around toxic drilling. CalGEM, do your job!”

CalGEM’s pre-rulemaking process comes to a close as one of California’s largest oil operators is expected to file for bankruptcy later this week, posing significant financial risks to taxpayers in the state. Already burdened with $5 billion in debt before the pandemic, California Resources Corporation (CRC) has 6,000 idle wells in the state and according to a Los Angeles Times investigation, faces cleanup costs that outpace its total market value. Californians will be on the hook for $9.1 billion in liabilities to eventually close and plug all wells in the state because state regulators have never made oil companies put up enough in bond money to cover the closure of wells when they receive permits.

“The costs of living near oil and gas wells include higher risk of cancer, asthma, and preterm birth, and those consequences are only increasing. Meanwhile, oil production in California is in a long-term decline,” said Kobi Naseck of Voices In Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods. “Right now, millions of Californians—overwhelmingly low income, Black, Indigenous, and people of color—are reckoning with the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to these chronic health issues caused by the oil industry in their backyards. VISION calls for a Just Recovery from COVID that includes necessary health and safety setbacks and a Just Transition for workers employed by the failing fossil fuel industry and impacted communities.”