Newsom Administration issued 138 offshore well permits in CA waters prior to big oil spill!

By Dan Bacher | 

Los Angeles — While “marine protected areas” created under the leadership of a Big Oil lobbyist are currently threatened by a massive oil spill off Huntington Beach, the oil and gas regulatory agency under Governor Gavin Newsom has issued 138 oil permits for operations in state waters since he assumed office, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance revealed today.

And as birds, fish and other wildlife die from the 126,000 gallons of crude oil unleashed by the oil spill, the two groups also said the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) is 278 days late in delivering Newsom a rule setting a barrier between oil operations and vulnerable communities. 

“This current spill makes it clear like never before that there is no such thing as safe proximity to oil drilling,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker in a statement. “Governor Newsom must stop issuing both offshore and onshore permits immediately and set a barrier of 2,500 feet between vulnerable communities and oil operations if his own oil and gas supervisor won’t.”  

Tucker said the state banned the dispensing of new oil drilling leases in state waters up to two miles from shore in 1969 after the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill.

“But new drilling and other work on wells in existing leases in state waters was never banned. Though advocates urged Jerry Brown to halt this practice, he never did. Neither has Newsom,” said Tucker.

“Governor Newsom has issued 138 permits for wells located offshore,” according to Kyle Ferrar, Western program coordinator for the FracTracker Alliance. “This includes five new drilling permits and 133 permits to perform work on existing offshore wells.  The oil industry often does this work to address the risks of aging oil and gas wells and infrastructure rather than shut these operations down and clean them up—which is what we should be doing.”

Here is how the 138 permits break down:

• California oil regulators issued 125 permits to rework wells plus five permits to drill new wells to THUMS Long Beach Co., a subsidiary of California Resources Corporation, according to Ferrar.

• Another five permits were issued to the State Lands Commission, likely related to the decommissioning of Platform Holly in waters off Santa Barbara.

• Three other permits were issued to California Resources Production Corporation to work on wells located on Orange County offshore oil rigs. Two of the wells were located on platform Emmy, and the third on platform Esther. The platforms are located from a mile to a mile and a half from California shores.

At the same time, the groups noted that in 2020, Newsom gave his top oil regulator, Uduak-Joe Ntuk, a deadline of December 31, 2020 to create a setback between oil drilling operations and vulnerable communities. Ntuk had not responded to Newsom’s first request for a setback rule made at the end of 2019.  

“When Ntuk did not meet the hard 2020 deadline, the Governor did nothing despite months of public comment overwhelmingly in favor of a setback to the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) that Uduak heads and a panel CalGEM has at its disposal of chosen independent scientists and health experts,” the groups stated.

“Oil & Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk has blown it,” said Tucker. “He is now 278 days late and the fact that no rule has been proposed on a setback and Gov. Newsom has not used his executive authority to mandate one to protect public health is outrageous.”

She said frontline communities and environmental advocates are demanding a setback of 2,500 feet between frontline communities and oil drilling operations. Based on peer-reviewed studies, a setback of twice that distance—at least one mile—is warranted to decrease risk of cancer, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and neurological diseases, as well as preterm births, low birth weights, and birth defects.  

So far, Newsom has issued more than 9,000 oil drilling permits since he took office at the start of 2019. Roughly ten percent of permits issued are for wells too close to communities. More than two million Californians live within a half mile of a well, while seven million live within a mile,” Tucker concluded. 

On February 16, I revealed here how a report by Kyle Ferrar of the Fractracker Alliance confirmed my extensive reporting on how the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative in Southern California, chaired by Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) President, did little or nothing to protect the marine environment from oil and gas drilling:

Amazingly, the report I wrote with data provided by Ferrar  targeted the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve off Huntington Beach and two “marine protected areas” as being particularly vulnerable to ecological damage by oil and gas drilling. Guess where the oil spill is located?  

Yes, it’s located in the same area now impacted by the Huntington Beach oil spill!

The report also revealed the threat to the ecosystem presented by oil and gas production wells on state land on Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.  

“The fossil fuel industry has historically taken advantage of the nation’s mineral estate for private profit, while outsourcing the public health debts of degraded environmental quality to Frontline Communities,” said Ferrar. “While President Biden has recently ordered the Department of Interior to put a 60-day halt on permitting new oil and gas drilling permits on federal lands, no such policy exists for state lands in California.”

Ferrar said Governor Newsom’s administration has allowed the California Geological Energy Management Division to issue rework and new drilling permits on California state lands, bringing the total number of operational oil and gas wells on state lands up to a total of 178, almost half of which are “idle.” This number “pales in comparison to the number of California oil and gas wells on federal lands; a total of 6,997 operational wells,” noted Ferrar.

“FracTracker Alliance has mapped out the operational oil and gas wells located on state lands in California, using the California Protected Areas Database. The areas containing the highest concentrations of oil and gas wells on state lands include two sensitive ecosystem environments,” he stated.

“Figure 1 shows the 102 operational oil and gas wells located in Southern California’s Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve. The wells are part of the Huntington Beach oil field. The preserve shares marine habitat with a marine protected area (MPA) and is habitat for numerous rare and several endangered species,” he pointed out. You can see Figure 1 here:

In the waters adjacent to Bolsa Chica State Beach, there are two MPAs, Bolsa Bay State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) and Bolsa Chica Basin State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) No-Take. Both “marine protected areas” went into effect in January 2012 under the controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.

In an apparent conflict of interest, Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd chaired the MLPA Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create “marine protected areas” at the same time that she was lobbying for offshore drilling in the same region.  

The “marine protected areas” created under the MLPA Initiative failed to protect the ocean ecosystem from offshore oil and gas drilling and fracking, water pollution, energy projects, military testing and other human impacts on the ocean other than fishing. The “marine protected areas” targeted anglers and commercial fishermen — and let the oil and gas industry and corporate polluters off the hook.

California currently has a coastal network of 124 “protected areas,” supposedly “designed to help increase the coherence and effectiveness of protecting the state’s marine life, habitats, and ecosystems,” according to California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). That’s the same agency that is promoting Governor Newsom’s Delta Tunnel, a massive public works project that would hasten the extinction of imperiled Delta and longfin smelt, Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento spring-run and winter-run Chinook, green sturgeon and other fish species.

In addition to the 102 operational oil and gas wells in the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Ferrar also revealed that there are 50 operational oil and gas wells permitted on California state lands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, now in in the midst of its biggest ecological crisis ever.

Oil industry reacts to Huntington Beach Oil Spill 

Meanwhile, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) and former Chair of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to create “marine protected areas” in Southern California, today responded to the Huntington Beach Oil Spill in a statement:

“Safety and operational excellence are core values for the Western States Petroleum Association and our member companies. Californians deserve the highest safety and stewardship standards from the companies entrusted to provide affordable and reliable energy.

“Platform Elly and the associated infrastructure in the Beta Field are not operated by a WSPA member. Questions should be directed to Amplify Energy.

“Any spill is a tragedy and we are grateful to the Coast Guard and the unified incident command for their rapid response to the spill and their work to minimize the impacts on the environment and marine life.”

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