3200-foot setback zone is not 'strategic zone' for oil drilling, would benefit 2.7 million people

Nalleli Cobo courtesy of the Last Chance Alliance. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

69% of people within 3200 feet of oil well in California are people of color

Unlike other oil and gas producing states including Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and even Texas, the state of California has no health and safety setbacks between homes, schools, child care centers, hospitals and other facilities.

In fact, an oil company can drill a well right next to a house, school or playground in the state that California politicians tout as the country’s “green” and “progressive” leader.

However, that will hopefully change soon. Under intense pressure from a coalition of hundreds of environmental justice, indigenous, environmental, public health and public interest groups, the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) under the state’s Department of Conservation, has been working on a rulemaking process for protective setbacks for more than two years. 

FracTracker Alliance this morning released a new report, a geospatial analysis assessing the projected impact of a 3,200’ public health setback from oil and gas extraction operations, as defined by CalGEM’s draft rule. Among other things, the report reveals that the 3200-foot setback zone is not “a strategic zone” for oil and gas production and would benefit 2.7 million Californians.

“More than 28,000 operational oil and gas wells are located within 3,200’ of a home, hospital, school, or other sensitive receptor,” revealed Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance, the report’s author. “While this accounts for over 27% of the operational wells in the state, these wells account for less than 24% of statewide oil production. In 2021, 22% of new drilling permits were issued within the proposed 3,200’ setback, while only 11% of new wells were drilled within the proposed setback.”

“It is clear that the area within the 3,200’ setback is not a strategic zone for oil production,” summed up Ferrar. “Halting new permitting within the zone and plugging and remediating existing operations would immediately benefit the environmental health of the more than 2.7 million Californians living within 3,200’ of an existing operational oil and gas well.”  

This is also an environmental justice issue, as a disparate number of those living within 3,200’ of an operational well are people of color, and over 21% are under the age of 18, noted Ferrar. He outlined the data on well counts, permit counts, new drilling, production and demography as follows:

Well Counts; of the 103,890 wells listed as unplugged/operational (active/idle/new) in the CalGEM “AllWells” dataset, 28,367 (27.3%) wells are located within 3,200 feet of a sensitive receptor.  

Permit Counts; of the 542 new drilling permits issued by CalGEM in 2021, 120 (22.1%) were located within the 3,200’ setback zone.

New Drilling; of the 1,110 new wells drilled (2020-2021), 123 (11.1%) were located within the 3,200’ setback zone.

Production; in 2020, 23.86% of the total 141,638,219 bbls was produced from wells in the proposed 3,200’ setback zone.

Demographics; of the 2,763,383 Californians living within 3,200’ of an operational oil and gas well, 69% are “non-white” (including Hispanic or Latino), according to the Fractracker analysis of Department of Conservation data. 5.9% are children under 5 years of age and 21.4% are children under 18 years of age.  

For Nalleli Cobo of Los Angeles, the need for health and safety setbacks around oil wells is very personal. Cobo has been fighting toxic oil wells in her South LA community since she was 9 years old, according to the Last Chance Alliance.

The notorious AllenCo oil drilling site was located just two blocks from her school.  In 2010, Nalleli had constant nosebleeds and headaches, developed asthma and was hospitalized for heart palpitations. She’s been working with her community to fight Big Oil and establish a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer in Los Angeles.

Cobo shared her experience growing up near an oil well when the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) met publicly with advocates of fossil fuel divestment at a virtual Sustainability Symposium on February 9,

“My health declined,” she testified. “I started getting body spasms so severe I couldn’t move. My mom would have to carry me from one place to another. At the age of 19, I was diagnosed with stage 2 cancer.”  

Kobi Naseck with VISION underlined the significance of the new report. VISION or VISIÓN (Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods) is a bilingual coalition of environmental justice, public health and safety, air quality, frontline, and indigenous organizations that formed to protect California's most vulnerable communities from oil and gas extraction in their backyards.

"With each new data-driven report that comes out, we discover just how widespread and harmful the impacts of neighborhood oil and gas drilling are,” Naseck stated. “Big Oil should have never had a license to drill in our neighborhoods in the first place, it's a practice that is racist and classist, and now we have numbers backing up that reality that frontline communities have lived with for decade. How many more reports do our leaders need to take action to right this wrong and create protective, comprehensive setback zones that apply to new and existing wells?”

Aimee Dewing, Communications Lead for the Last Chance Alliance, noted that the report reveals that oil wells located within communities “are the least productive wells in the state. 90% of the operational wells within the 3,200 ft. setback zone statewide are marginally producing, reporting less than 10 bbls/day of oil production. Neighborhood drilling poses significant health harms to surrounding community members and it isn't even a strategic zone for oil production.” 

“The vast majority of CA's oil production comes from Kern oil fields, outside the 3,200 ft setback zone. While permit applications and approvals within the setback zone continue to decrease, operators are still extracting oil near homes, schools and hospitals in an effort to suck up every last drop--regardless of the risk to communities. Closure costs for wells in populated areas are much higher than in oil fields too, but these costs are passed on to taxpayers,” she continued.

She added that Exxon is again posting record highest profits this quarter, yet continues to operate 1,148 idle and marginally producing wells near homes in California that need to be plugged and remediated.  

Frontline communities and climate justice advocates have submitted over 60,000 comments to state oil regulator CalGEM urging them to strengthen the proposed rule to apply to permitting for existing operations within the 3,200 ft. setback zone. They continue to await the release of the draft rule later this year, according to Dewing.  

Background: Big Oil’s Grip on Sacramento  

The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in Sacramento, has spent over $17.5 million alone lobbying the California Legislature and other state officials over the past three years.

In 2021, WSPA spent $4,397,004 lobbying legislators and state officials to serve Big Oil's agenda, according to data filed with California Secretary of State’s Office.    

The association spent $957,137 on lobbying in the fourth quarter of 2021. The money went to an array of in-house lobbyists and outside lobbying firms, topped by Ramball Environ in Philadelphia that received $116,981 in the fourth quarter and $366,864 in 2021.  

WSPA spent a total of $8.8 million in 2019 and $4,267,181 in 2020 on lobbying California legislators and officials as thousands of oil and gas drilling permits were approved by CalGEM, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency: www.citywatchla.com/...    

In 2020, even a weak bill recommending health and safety setbacks around oil and gas failed to get through the oil industry-friendly California Legislature.

Then in 2021, another stronger bill, SB 467, failed to pass throughout the legislature because of heavy oil industry lobbying of legislators, including those who had received big campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. The bill would have banned fracking by 2023 eliminating fracking and instituting mandatory health and safety zones between oil and gas extraction and places where Californians live, work, and study.    

The inordinate influence by Big Oil on California politicians and regulators is most dramatically evidenced by the approval of thousands of new and reworked onshore oil and gas well permits by CalGEM, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, since Newsom took office in January 2019.

On the same day the LA City Council voted to ban oil and gas wells in city limits, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance reported at www.NewsomWellWatch.org that Governor Newsom has approved 10,212 oil drilling permits since he assumed office in 2019. The total is nearly identical to the number of permits Governor Jerry Brown approved in his first three years.  

Lobbying is just one of the seven methods that Big Oil uses in California to exercise inordinate influence over California regulators. WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 7 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 (7) contributing to non profit organizations.  

In one glaring example of oil and gas industry officials serving on regulatory panels, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, 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 from 2009 to 2012, as well as serving on the task forces to create “marine protected areas” on the Central Coast, North Central Coast and North Coast from 2004 to 2012.  

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