California was supposed to get protection from backyard oil drilling - Another missed deadline

Living next to oil drilling in south Los Angeles. 
(Photo CC by Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance on Flickr) | 

By Dan Bacher | @DanBacher

This is the second major delay in the release of a “discussion draft” of the rule, after the agency failed to release a rule by the end of 2020, according to a statement by VISION  (Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods), a coalition of frontline, environmental justice, and public health and safety community groups focused on the impact of oil and gas extraction on communities in Kern and Los Angeles Counties:

The deadline of “by the end of Spring 2021” passed as the National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Prediction Center@NWSWPC forecasted that a “record-breaking and dangerous heatwave” is coming to the West starting this weekend as a severe drought, combined with poor water management, has resulted in dramatically low water conditions at reservoirs throughout the state and massive fish kills on the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers.

“Over 80 sites are forecast to break daily high temperature records starting this weekend. All-time June monthly records could also be broken in some locations in the Pacific Northwest,” a tweet from the Service stated.

Unlike other oil and gas producing states, including North Dakota, Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania, California has zero setbacks between oil and gas wells as homes, hospitals, child care centers and other facilities. Unlike in other states, the fossil fuel industry can build and oil or gas well right next to your home in California. Yet California politicians continue to still portray the state as the nation’s “green” and “progressive” leader.

“CalGEM was tasked with developing a proposed oil and gas buffer rule by Governor Gavin Newsom in a November 2019 directive,” according to VISION. “The directive, which was applauded by environmental justice communities and advocates, required the Department of Conservation to establish a transparent set of rules to protect residents living near oil and gas extraction sites. CalGEM, however, continues to drag its feet.”

More than five million Californians live within a mile of active oil and gas operations, according to VISION. Proximity to oil production sites increases exposure to toxic chemicals and byproducts of California’s industrial oil operations that take place just feet away from homes, schools, parks, and hospitals.

“For years, affected frontline residents and environmental justice advocates have called on CalGEM to consider the health impacts of neighborhood oil and gas drilling, including: preterm birth, low birth weights, asthma and other respiratory diseases, hospitalization for heart failure, fatigue, stress, severe cases of COVID-19 and cancers. In California, neighborhood oil and gas extraction threatens life expectancy and overwhelmingly affects low-income communities and Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color, a clear form of environmental racism,” the coalition stated.

“This summer, those same residents left unprotected from neighborhood oil and gas drilling are also facing increasingly dangerous air pollution, wildfire smoke, and heat,” the coalition wrote.

In early 2020, CalGEM convened a set of pre-rulemaking public health workshops, and the agency later received an executive order from Governor Gavin Newsom that set a deadline for a draft rule on setbacks by December 31, 2020.

“Thousands of frontline community residents and environmental advocates attended in-person and online webinars hosted by CalGEM to urge the agency to develop a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer to protect communities,” VISION stated. “Over 40,000 public comments overwhelmingly in support of a minimum 2,500 ft setback were submitted, the most received in the agency’s history, yet CalGEM missed the December 2020 deadline to produce a health rule.”

The group noted that the agency then took months to contract academic public health experts to weigh in, though the state’s own scientists already identified the health threats posed by proximity to oil sites six years ago. The results of the public health expert panel’s recommendation have not been made public, nor has a draft rule been released.

Frontline community members and VISION member organizations commented on their dismay with the delay, regarded as just another in a long line of delays that reinforces California’s legacy of environmental racism and injustice that is sustained by Deep Regulatory Capture by the oil and gas industries.

“This delay is sadly unsurprising,” said Anabel Marquez, President of the Committee for a Better Shafter. “For communities like ours that live in these conditions every day, we are forgotten and never prioritized. We are told our lives and well-being do not matter as much as their political ambitions. The public supports this, scientific evidence supports this, and we continue to see that our loved ones are dying. We have seen both the California legislature and the Governor continue to fail us and view us as expendable. How long will we have to wait for our lives to mean as much as theirs?”

“How much longer are our communities supposed to wait?” said Kobi Naseck, Coalition Coordinator, Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISIÓN). “This delay is just another in a long line that reinforces California’s legacy of environmental racism and injustice. VISIÓN will keep fighting for setbacks and to protect all residents from the possibility of Big Oil setting up shop across the street to pollute our homes and schools. We are dismayed that CalGEM has further delayed critical public health protections and relief from fossil fuel pollution for frontline communities by not releasing the draft rule. The science is clear: 2500 ft or greater setbacks between communities and oil/gas production sites can reduce exposure to carcinogens and other air toxics. There is no excuse for the delay nor for withholding the public health panel’s recommendations, while continuing to expand fossil fuel operations that endanger the health and safety of communities of color.”

“For our communities, this delay is more than just a bureaucratic misstep,” said Dr. Catherine Garoupa White, Executive Director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ). “For us, it means more emergency room visits, more cancer diagnoses, and more missed days of school and work from asthma attacks and other health impacts. Despite the epidemic levels of sickness in the San Joaquin Valley caused by being one of the most polluted air basins in the nation for particle and ozone pollution, our state and local governments refuse to do the bare minimum to protect people from the oil and gas industry’s harmful pollutants: We demand 2,500 setbacks now.”

“Dangerous air has set environmental justice communities back for long enough. Putting off the long overdue protections shows Californians that CalGEM is still willing to sacrifice low-income communities,” said Cesar Aguirre, community organizer with Central California Environmental Justice Network. “It is clear CalGEM does not respect the urgency needed to prevent further damage and inequity in our communities. Living in proximity to oil operations causes birth defects, respiratory damage, and exposes Californians to cancer causing chemicals. The science is clear, lack of action is disrespectful to environmental justice communities. We deserve better.”

“Public health leaders have been ringing the alarm about the adverse health impacts of living near oil drilling for decades,” said Martha Dina Arguello, Executive Director, Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles. “There is a growing body of evidence that living near oil and gas wells adversely impacts health including increases in preterm birth that can have lasting negative impacts on both mother and child. The delayed health and safety rule is another disappointing failure of leadership. Elected officials and regulators must do their jobs and protect the health of people living next to this inherently dangerous practice.”

“Our communities cannot wait any longer. Our lives and health cannot be overlooked for the sake of the oil industry. This delay will continue to affect the health of thousands of frontline communities who live in close proximity to these sites,” said Wendy Miranda, Wilmington resident with Communities for A Better Environment. “We don’t deserve the constant headaches, nosebleeds, and asthma attacks that we get on a day-to-day basis. We deserve to breathe clean air. We need a minimum 2,500 ft setback now.”

VISION is a member of the Last Chance Alliance, a broad coalition that sent Newsom an open letter on June 21 urging him to:

  1. “Direct CalGEM to issue a public health rule that includes at least a 2,500-foot setback between new and existing fossil fuel operations and all sensitive sites.
  2. Issue a moratorium on all new oil or gas permits within 2,500 feet of homes, schools and other sensitive sites until the rulemaking process has delivered equal or stronger protections for new and existing permits.”

Last Chance Alliance describes itself as an alliance of more than 750 public health, environmental justice, climate, and labor organizations united to urge Governor Gavin Newsom to end fossil fuel extraction across California and build a just climate future where every community can thrive.

Uduak-Joe Ntuk, California’s oil and gas supervisor, was not made available for an interview with the Associated Press at press time on Tuesday. However, Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency that oversees CalGEM, told the AP that the issue is complex and requires more time.

Regulators “continue to work toward developing science-based health and safety regulations to protect communities and workers from the impacts of oil extraction activities,” she said in an email to AP reporter Kathleen Ronayne.

I have written hundreds of articles on this website documenting the reason for California’s failure to protect the public from oil and gas  drilling  — capture of the Governor’s Office, Legislature and regulatory agencies by Big Oil.

On April 27, Amy Moas of Greenpeace began a series of pieces profiling some of the many ways that the fossil fuel industry exerts pressure across California’s government with a well-written and well-researched piece, “California’s Fossil Fuel Friendships – Part 1. Votes for Polluters over People.” These reports confirm the results of my extensive research over the past decade.

“Through lobbying, insider influence, campaign spending and more, the fossil fuel industry has secured friends within the Governor’s office, and at the legislative and regulatory levels resulting in cuts to public health and climate ambitions,” she wrote:…

In her first piece, she reported on the 4 lawmakers holding up crucial health protections for more than 2 million Californians living near drilling, focusing on two bills —  AB 345 in 2020 and SB467 in 2021- that would have required health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells for the first time.

Official findings compiled by Moas reveal that those four lawmakers — State Senator Majority Leader Robert Hertzberg, Senator Ben Hueso, Senator Susan Eggman and Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins — received a total of $288,607 in donations from the oil and gas industry.

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