New report recommends health and safety setbacks of one mile around California oil and gas wells

By Dan Bacher |  The Fractracker Alliance has just published a new study on the potential impacts of health and safety setbacks and environm...

By Dan Bacher | 

The Fractracker Alliance has just published a new study on the potential impacts of health and safety setbacks and environmental justice in California revealing that 2.7  million people, mostly low income and people of color, live within 2,500' of oil and gas infrastructure, and a total of 7.37 million Californians live within 1 mile of oil and gas wells.

The report, People and Production: Reducing Risk in California Extractionmakes a number of conclusions, including recommending a setback of at least one mile between oil and gas wells and homes, schools, based on the peer-reviewed literature. 

Kyle Ferrar, MPH with the Fractracker Alliance, writes in the report’s executive summary: 

“New research shows that low-income communities and communities of color that are most impacted by oil and gas extraction (Frontline Communities) in California are at an elevated risk for preterm birthlow birth weight, and other negative birth outcomes. This is in addition to the elevated risks of cancer; risks for respiratory, cardiovascular, and pulmonary disorders; and risks for eyes, ears, nose, throat, and skin irritation that Frontline Communities face, among others. Public health interventions including setback requirements for oil and gas drilling are necessary to address the environmental health endemics documented in Frontline Communities”.

The report focuses on the two immediate stakeholders impacted by oil and gas well drilling setbacks: Frontline Communities and oil and gas operators, according to Ferrar.

First, using U.S. Census data this report helps to define the Frontline Communities most impacted by oil and gas extraction.

Second, using GIS techniques and California state data, this report estimates the potential impact of a setback on California’s oil production.

The summary outlines the results and conclusions of these analyses below:

  •  Previous statewide and regional analyses on proximity of oil and gas extraction to various demographics, including analyses included in Kern County’s 2020 draft EIR, have inadequately investigated disparate impacts, and have published erroneous results.
  • This analysis shows that approximately 2.17 million Californians live within 2,500’ of an operational oil and gas well, and about 7.37 million Californians live within 1 mile.
  • California’s Frontline Communities living closest to oil and gas extraction sites with high densities of wells are predominantly low income households with non-white and Latinx demographics.
  • The majority of oil and gas wells are located in environmental justice communities most impacted by contaminated groundwater and air quality degradation resulting from oil and gas extraction, with high risks of low-birth weight pregnancy outcomes.
  • Adequate Setbacks for permitting new oil and gas wells will reduce health risks for Frontline Communities.
  • Setbacks for permitting new oil and gas wells will not decrease existing California oil and gas production.
  • Phasing out wells within setback distances will further decrease health risks for Frontline Communities.
  • Phasing out wells by disallowing rework permits within a 2,500’ setback distance will have a minimal impact on overall statewide oil production, estimated at an annual maximum loss of 1% by volume.
  • Setbacks greater than 2,500’ in combination with other public health interventions are necessary to reduce risk for Frontline Communities.
  • Based on the peer reviewed literature, a setback of at least one mile is recommended.” 

In the report’s conclusion, Ferrar notes how the opposition by the oil industry has resulted in the current situation where California lacks protections against emissions from oil and gas wells:

“The oil and gas industry in California has consistently pushed back against Frontline Communities who demand public health protections against emissions from oil and gas operations. This occurs even when there will be little to no impact reducing production. It is an industry policy to refuse any concessions and oppose all measures, even to protect public health, by leveraging the industry’s wealth at every level of the political hierarchy.”  

He also highlights the “multiple wins” for public health in Southern California in 2020 on the county and city level even though the Big Oil has wielded its power in the Legislature by even relatively weak legislation to create 2500’ health and safety setbacks:

“Fatefully, 2020 has resulted in multiple wins for public health in California. While the failure of AB345 made it clear that the California state legislature is still beholden to the fossil fuel industry, the momentum has continued. Community grassroots groups in Ventura County successfully passed a 1,500’ setback ordinance for occupied dwellings and 2,500’ setbacks for sensitive receptor sites including healthcare facilities and schools. Just south of Ventura, the County of Los Angeles is also in the midst of a rule-making process that is considering multiple setbacks, including 1,000’ to 2,500’ distances. And a committee of the Los Angeles City Council just voted to develop a proposal that would phase out oil drilling across the city as a non-conforming use.”

On the other hand, he notes how “Kern County is creating a new process to streamline oil and gas well permitting and has even proposed to decrease the existing zone-specific 300’ setbacks from homes to 210’.”

“Kern County Frontline Communities and the rest of California also deserve the same consideration as residents of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. The research is clear that a setback of at least one mile in addition to more site specific public health interventions are necessary to reduce the negative health impacts resulting from these industrial operations within and neighboring Frontline Communities,” concluded Ferrar.

To read the full report, go to:

California currently requires no health or safety setbacks around oil and gas wells. Alaska is the only other oil or gas producing state that doesn’t have setbacks at this time; even Texas and North Dakota have minimal setbacks around oil and gas wells.

Colorado in September increased setbacks from 5,000 feet to 2,000 feet statewide ( while the City of Dallas Texas has setbacks of 1,500 feet. Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Pennsylvania also require health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells. 

California currently doesn’t require health and safety setbacks like other states do because of the inordinate power the Western States Petroleum Association and the oil companies, including Chevron, Area Energy and the California Resources Corporation, wield over the Legislature, Governor’s Office and regulatory agencies.

As I revealed here in August 2020, three California Senate Democrats who voted with Republicans against an amended version of AB 345, a bill that would require 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,” 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. 

Those regulations would include “safety requirements and the establishment of a minimum setback distance between oil and gas activities and sensitive receptors, as provided, based on health, scientific, and other data.” They would also “consider a setback distance of 2,500 feet from schools, playgrounds, and public facilities where children are present.”   

Below are the career oil and gas donation totals for the Senators who voted against and for AB 345, according to Follow the Money, as compiled by Donny Shaw, editor and co-founder of

Voted against AB 345:

Bob Hertzberg: $82,757
Anna Caballero: $15,349
Ben Hueso: $44,100
Andrea Borgeas: $20,000
Brian Jones: $67,300

Voted in favor of AB 345:

Ben Allen: $2,500
Hannah Beth Jackson: $12,000
Bill Monning: $700
Henry Stern: $1000 (signed a no fossil fuel pledge)

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. The total in oil and gas donations for those voting against the bill comes to $229,506 when you include the Senate Republicans.

The vote against even a weak setbacks bill took place during a pandemic year when California oil regulators approved thousands of new permits and oil well rework permits, making the situation even worse.

Since January 2019, Governor Newsom’s oil and gas regulators have approved a total of 7,625 total oil and gas drilling permits, according to updated data from Consumer Watchdog and the Fractracker Alliance at the website:

In 2020 to date, CalGEM has approved 3,344 permits, including 1,884 new permits and 1,460 oil well rework permits. New permits approved during the first nine months of 2020 rose 160%, while new wells actually drilled plummeted, the groups found. 

The two public interest groups linked the map on to video footage capturing leaking infrastructure at half a dozen well sites near communities that received permits under the Newsom Administration.

The footage at well sites, captured by Earthworks' Community Empowerment Project California Organizer using optical gas imaging technology,  makes the pollution emitted from oil wells visible. The groups referred what they called “fugitive emissions” to the California Air Resources Board for appropriate action. 

“Videos on the site feature toxic leaking wells in South Los Angeles near Jefferson Park within 200 feet of homes, playgrounds, and a health clinic,” according to a press release from the two groups. “Residents there battle respiratory problems, chronic nosebleeds, skin and eye irritation and headaches. This pattern is repeated at other sites where videos show leaking operations in Carson in the City of Los Angeles, and in Long Beach where one well is located less than 70 feet from a home.”   

A report by FrackTracker Alliance with support from Earthworks documenting the wells with fugitive emissions is available here:

As we enter the New Year, it is very clear that the “green” and “progressive” image of California that the state’s politicians and mainstream media have promoted for many years is based on a false narrative when you consider the expansion of oil and gas drilling permits in recent years and the lack of long-needed health and safety regulations to protect frontline communities near drilling sites from the dangerous health and environmental impacts of oil and gas drilling.

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