Ventura County approves nation's first 2500 foot health, safety setback from oil wells as CA permits to drill new wells increase 190%

Supporters of the 2500 foot health and safety setbacks at the Ventura County Board of Supervisors
meeting last night. Photo courtesy of Tomas Morales Rebecchi. |

By Dan Bacher | 

After years of community members organizing and going to hearing after hearing, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in an on-line 14-hour final hearing last night (September 1) voted 3 to 2 to tentatively approve the nation’s first 2500 foot health and safety setback from oil wells as part of their General Plan.

Supervisors John C.  Zaragoza, Steve Bennett and Linda Parks voted for the plan, while Supervisors  Kelly Long and Bob Huber voted against it.  

Dallas, Texas currently requires 1500 foot setbacks around oil wells, but no city, county or state in the U.S. has a 2500 foot setback in place at this time. Despite California’s “green” and “progressive” veneer, the state of California requires zero health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells, unlike Texas, North Dakota, Colorado, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states do.

“We're now one step closer to undoing the history of environmental racism in Ventura County,” said Food & Water Action Central Coast Organizing Manager Tomas Morales Rebecchi. “Now it’s Governor Gavin Newsom’s turn to protect all of California.” 

Rebecchi said his family and their two young children live within one mile of hundreds of oil wells on Ventura’s Westside. “Our community is over 70% Latino and we have organized for years to ensure our voices are heard and oil drilling is stopped next to our homes,” he noted. “Today’s vote is a testament to people power beating oil industry money.” 

Ventura County Residents, advocates and community leaders provided public comment during the meeting, urging the board to adopt a 2,500-foot setback, the minimum recommended by public health professionals and scientists. The General Plan previously included a 2,500-foot setback from schools and a 1,500-foot setback from homes.

After hearing the hours of testimony, the Board tentatively voted to pass the 2,500-foot buffer for schools and study increasing setbacks to 2,500-foot from all “sensitive receptors,” including homes, by 2022, according to Rebecchi. 

The final vote on the final General Plan will be on Sept 15, at 3 pm. Jeff Barnes, principal assistant county counsel, said, “We think it would be a lot cleaner plan. It is not a do-over."

”We argued that homes are schools during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Rebecchi. “The three supervisors voting for the plan said they support a 2500 feet setback for homes, but they said the EIR prepared by staff specified 1500 foot setbacks for homes. They said they weren’t sure if they could legally change it, so they directed staff to bring it back to the board at a later date after staff does a study of raising the setback for homes to 2500 feet.”

Over 50 people commented, with about half supporting the passage of the measure and the other half, including oil industry representatives, telling them to vote no, according to Rebecchi.

Representatives from the Western States Petroleum Association, Aera Oil Corporation (Shell/Exxon) and other fossil fuel interests urged the board to reject the proposed plan. saying that they need more studies of the economic impact of the ordinance during the time of COVID. 

More than 8,500 people in Ventura County live within 2,500 feet of an active oil or gas well, about 60% of them Latino, according to an analysis by the FracTracker Alliance. Across the state, the vast majority of Californians who live in close proximity to oil drilling are from communities of color, already severely overburdened with other forms of pollution—from ports, freeways, oil refineries, agribusiness and other major polluters.

“Oil production sites use and emit known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors like benzene, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide, in addition to releasing fine and ultra-fine particulate matter,” according to a press release from the Last Chance Alliance. “All of these chemicals and emissions have proven records of toxicity and are known to cause health problems ranging from nosebleeds to chronic headaches, increased risks of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and increased risk of cancer.”

Two different studies released earlier this year revealed that living near oil wells also has significant adverse effects on pregnant mothers and newborn babies in California.

"Ventura County's general plan represents one of the nation's most ambitious and comprehensive plans to protect communities from the dangers of oil and gas pollution," said Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter Director Jonathan Ullman. "It's long been known that living within 2,500 feet of an oil well threatens the health and safety of our communities, and creating a buffer zone between oil drills and the places our families live and go to school is an important step forward for Ventura County's public health."

After failure of setbacks bill, groups ask Newsom and CalGEM to establish statewide setbacks

Ventura County’s decision to establish health and safety buffer zones between communities and oil drilling operations follows the State Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee’s rejection last month of a bill, AB 345, that would “consider a setback distance of 2,500 feet from schools, playgrounds, and public facilities where children are present.” The amended bill would have required the Geologic Energy Management Division of the Department of Conservation to adopt regulations by July 1, 2022, to “protect public health and safety near oil and gas extraction facilities.”

The three California Senate Democrats who voted with Republicans against AB 345 received $142,206 in donations from oil and gas corporations. Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, Senator Anna Caballero and Senator Ben Hueso joined Republican Senators Andrea Borgeas and Brian Jones to defeat the legislation in a 5 to 4 vote in a Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee hearing on August 5.

Hertzberg has taken a career total of $82,757 from the oil and gas industry; Anna Caballero, $15,349; Ben Hueso: $44,100; Andrea Borgeas, $20,000; and Brian Jones, $67,300.

While the Senate Democrats voting for AB 345 only received $16,200 from oil and gas companies, the Senate Democrats voting against received $142,206, according to Follow the Money data compiled by Donny Shaw, editor and co-founder of The total in oil and gas donations for those voting against the bill comes to $229,506 when you include the Senate Republicans. 

With the failure of AB 345, it now falls to Governor Gavin Newsom and CalGEM to direct the oil and gas regulators to adopt a 2500 foot setback on a statewide level.

“This is an important first step toward protecting communities from oil and gas pollution, and it shows that local governments can fight back against the oil industry and win,” said Theo LeQuesne, a climate campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, referring to Ventura County’s vote last night. “Now we need Gov. Newsom to adopt a statewide setback of at least 2,500 feet and begin a just transition away from dirty fossil fuels.”

The Last Chance Alliance noted that other oil-producing counties in California, including Los Angeles, have explored enacting setbacks to protect community health, but have not yet taken action. They said initial proposals by Los Angeles regulators “have fallen woefully short of protecting human health and safety, with a mere 500-ft setback recommended by L.A. County and 600-foot setback for existing wells and 1,500-foot for new wells by L.A. City.”

“In contrast, last month Culver City councilmembers took the first necessary steps to phase out oil extraction in the city’s 78-acre portion of the Inglewood Oil Field, unanimously directing staff to develop a framework and timeline to phase out active oil wells,” they said.

“This victory for frontline communities in Ventura should remind L.A. City Council what leadership looks like and that there should be no drilling where we live, work and learn,” said Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles and co-chair of STAND-L.A., a coalition of community groups who oppose neighborhood drilling.

Lobi Naseck, VISIÓN (Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods) Coalition Coordinator, stated, “The 2500-ft setback ruling in Ventura county confirms what we’ve known all along - the majority of Californians are waking up to the dangers of fossil fuel extraction in our backyards and playgrounds and demanding protections. The Ventura County decision is a bright example of justice for the more than 5 million Californians statewide who live, work, and learn within 1 mile of an oil and gas site, the majority of which are a part of BIPOC communities.”

“Everyone who sees the commonsense 2,500 setback ruling in Ventura County will ask themselves - why isn’t this a statewide policy? Unfortunately, that’s a question frontline residents are still waiting for state legislators and administrators to answer,” Naseck concluded.      

New permits to drill new oil and gas wells increase 190% in first six months of 2020

Whether Newsom and CalGEM will support requiring 2500 foot setbacks around new oil and gas wells statewide, as environmental justice advocates are calling upon them to do, is another question.
Public interest groups Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance today (September 2) revealed that oil regulators under Governor Gavin Newsom are setting records for dispensing new oil and gas production well drilling permits during an unprecedented pandemic at a time when oil companies like the California Resources Corporation are filing for bankruptcy:

“The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), a branch of the Department of Conservation, granted 190% more permits to drill new oil and gas production wells in California in the first six months of 2020 over Newsom’s first six months in office,” according to the two groups. 

“In addition, after a nine-month moratorium on fracking that began in July 2019, CalGEM issued 48 new fracking permits to Aera and Chevron between April and July 2020.  During his first year in office, Newsom issued 211 fracking permits.”

The permit numbers and locations are posted and updated on an interactive map at the website: 

“This is exactly the wrong trendline we would expect to see at this point under Governor Newsom,” said Liza Tucker, Consumer Watchdog's Consumer Advocate. “We should have seen a ban on fracking, as the Governor promised during his campaign. We should be seeing fewer permits issued. That would be the natural result if we made oil companies pay for the true cost of doing business in California by putting up the money necessary to plug and clean up a well when they get a permit to drill one, as state law allows.”

“Oil companies appear to be applying for new permits without intending to use them, perhaps to draw new investors in the middle of a financial crisis due to COVID-19 and a plunge in oil demand and prices.  The last thing California should be doing is abetting them to go deeper into debt without shielding Californians from the financial consequences of being left holding the bag on well plugging and cleanup if they go under,” said Tucker.

In 2019, Governor Newsom’s administration practically matched the total number of new permits issued under Governor Jerry Brown in 2018. The Brown administration issued 2,229 new permits in 2018, while the Newsom Administration issued 2,337 new permits in 2019. 

But if CalGEM keeps up the current pace, 3,102 new permits to drill oil and gas production wells will be issued in 2020, according to FracTracker Alliance.

“That blows away Brown’s tally for new well drill permits during 2018 as well as Newsom’s new well drilling permits for 2019,” said FracTracker Alliance’s Western Program Coordinator, Kyle Ferrar.  “We have not seen this level of permits issued for drilling new oil and gas wells since 2015. Governor Newsom's permitting policies are the exact opposite of the managed decline he promised.” 

Background: Big Oil exerts enormous influence over California politicians and regulators

Why is the Newsom Administration approving increasing numbers of oil and gas permits during a pandemic when you would expect regulators to approve less? It might have something to do with the uncomfortable fact that the oil industry is the most powerful corporate lobby in California.

Last year the Western States Petroleum Association, the most powerful lobbying organization in the state, pumped more money into lobbying than any other organization in California, spending a total of $8.8 million. The San Ramon-based Chevron pumped the third most money into lobbying, a total of $5.9 million. The lobbying expenses of the two oil industry giants came to a total of $14.7 million.

During the first quarter of 2020, at the same time that the Newsom Administration approved 1,623 total oil drilling permits, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) spent $1,089,702 lobbying state officials.

Chevron spent even more: $1,638,497 in the first quarter of 2020 to influence legislators, the Governor’s Office and other state officials. The two oil industry giants combined to spend a total of $2,728,199 lobbying from January 1-March 31.

In the second quarter of 2020, WSPA spent $1,220,986 while Chevron spent $974,322 on lobbying in California, a total of $2,195,308.  

Big Oil’s tentacles extend far and wide in California politics. Lobbying is just one of the methods that Big Oil uses in California to exercise inordinate influence over California regulators. WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups; (5) working in collaboration with media; (6) creating alliances with labor unions; and (6) contributing to non profit organizations.

A classic example of deep regulatory capture in California is how Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create “marine protected areas” in Southern California at the same time that she was lobbying for new oil drilling off the West Coast.

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Follow Dan Bacher on  @DanBacher


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