Governor Newsom Asks Legislature to Deliver 3,200 Ft. Setbacks on New and Existing Wells

Representatives from a coalition of groups called upon Governor Newsom to stop new production of fossil fuels, drop existing output with a just transition and roll out oil drilling setbacks to existing wells in Sacramento on Saturday, August 13. Photo by Dan Bacher. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

On August 12, California Governor Gavin Newsom asked the State Legislature to end neighborhood oil drilling as part of a climate package he’s trying to pass before the end of the year’s legislative session on August 31.

In language sent to the legislature, one proposal would mandate a 3,200 foot health and safety buffer separating communities from both new and existing oil and gas extraction sites, according to a press statement from VISION (Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods), a coalition of climate and environmental justice groups.   

After sharing his  proposals addressing climate change with the Legislature, the Governor said in a statement,  “Cleaning the air we breathe. Protecting our communities from the harmful impacts of the oil industry. Accelerating California’s clean energy future. Each of these actions on their own are monumental steps to tackling the climate crisis – but California isn’t waiting a minute longer to get them done. We’re taking all of these major actions now in the most aggressive push on climate this state has ever seen because later is too late.” 

If approved by the legislature, the setbacks proposal would: (1) mark the end of all new extraction within the health and safety setback zone; (2) prohibit operators from obtaining rework permits on existing extraction sites in the zone: and (3) apply engineering and pollution controls to current operations that endanger frontline communities.  

In addition to the setbacks proposal, the climate package sent to the legislature features the following proposals, including carbon capture: 

  • Codifying statewide carbon neutrality goal to dramatically reduce climate pollution
    • Establishes a clear, legally binding, and achievable goal for California to achieve statewide carbon neutrality as soon as possible, and no later than 2045.
  • Ramping up our 2030 climate ambition
    • Adopts a more aggressive 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target – going from 40% to 55% below the 1990 level.
  • Establishing pathway toward state’s clean energy future
    • Creates clean electricity targets of 90% by 2035 and 95% by 2040 with the intent of advancing the state’s trajectory to the existing 100% clean electricity retail sales by 2045 goal.
  • Advancing natural and engineered technologies to remove carbon pollution
    • Establishes a clear regulatory framework for carbon removal and carbon capture, utilization and sequestration.
    • Requires the state to develop an achievable carbon removal target for natural and working lands.

Environmental justice groups praised Newsom for taking action on creating health and safety buffer zones around oil and gas wells while at the same time warning that the Governor's “overreliance on carbon capture ” will “lock in” fossil fuel infrastructure.

Environmental justice advocates are hoping  that the Big Oil-friendly California Legislature will finally support the 3,200 foot health and safety buffer after rejecting two bills supporting setbacks over the past two years.

At this time, California is still one of two oil and gas producing states — the other is Alaska — that doesn’t mandate health and safety setbacks around homes, schools, child care centers, hospitals and other facilities. Colorado, North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania and other oil and gas producing states have set minimum setbacks around oil and gas wells.

The groups said the end-of-session intervention by the Governor “follows years of advocacy led by frontline communities most impacted by oil and gas drilling. Because oil wells are generally only productive for a few years without reworking them, this policy will phase out neighborhood drilling in the near-term.”

“Finally, after years and years of environmental justice communities asking for comprehensive public health setbacks, we’re seeing some real action on this acute public health issue. We’re ready to see the legislature follow the Governor’s lead and end the chronic crisis of neighborhood drilling in California.” said Dan Ress, Staff Attorney, Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.

“Banning these harmful oil extraction methods is a critical environmental justice issue, especially as the most impacted frontline communities living near these oil and gas wells in California are often lower-income communities and non-white communities without access to quality healthcare. Nearly 7.5 million Californians live within one mile of an oil or gas well, while nearly 3 million live within the proposed 3,200 ft setback zone,”  the coalition said.

“Last Fall, California’s own scientists confirmed what we’ve long known - there is no safe distance from oil and gas extraction. California’s frontline communities suffer particularly due to increased air pollution from chemicals used during extraction methods and fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, which is often found in increased concentration surrounding oil and gas wells. These toxic byproducts of extraction are associated with chronic bronchitis, a higher risk for a serious case of COVID-19, epidemic levels of pediatric asthma, cancers, headaches, nosebleeds, high-risk pregnancies, and higher risks for pre-term birth babies,” the coalition continued.

However, the coalition noted that the Governor’s office has also proposed language on carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS). The Governor’s proposal includes a massive expansion of CCUS, with a target of removing 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2045, and a ban on the use of carbon capture for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). 

“The Governor’s targets rely on engineered carbon removal to address more than 20% of the state’s projected 2045 emissions: more than double what scientists deem appropriate. The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report: Mitigation of Climate Change warns that carbon capture and removal is a costly technology, unproven at scale, that prolongs fossil fuel use,” they said.

“While there’s near-universal scientific and public health support for health and safety buffer zones, the same cannot be said for carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS),” said Catherine Garoupa White, Executive Director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. “The biggest champions of CCUS are oil and gas operators – even as refinery communities and San Joaquin Valley residents raise real concerns that politicians are colluding with industry to unleash a new toxic legacy in the footsteps of oil and gas extraction.”

Representatives of frontline, environmental justice, and public health organizations with VISIÓN, who have been advocating for an end to what they call the state’s “dangerous and dirty practice” of neighborhood fossil fuel extraction for years responded to the Governor’s action with the following statements.

“We’ve known for years that neighborhood drilling is toxic, and now we’re seeing Governor Newsom take real steps toward ending that reality for millions of Californians,” said Kobi Naseck, VISIÓN Coalition Coordinator. “Right now, environmental justice communities are looking to the legislature to carry the Governor’s vision forward and tell Big Oil once and for all that our communities are not sacrifice zones. It will be clear now more than ever which members are willing to sell our neighborhoods to Big Oil greed, and which are taking a stand for climate and environmental justice.”

“After years of asking for an end to the racist and unjust practice of neighborhood drilling, this is a clear signal from the Newsom Administration that neighborhood drilling must come to an end in California,” stated Cesar Aguirre, Senior Community Organizer, Central California Environmental Justice Network. “The millions of Californians who live within the proposed 3,200ft setback zone, some with oil and gas derricks on their own fencelines, will be watching the legislature closely and calling on them to support the Governor’s proposal.”

“At the same time that the Governor is proposing what would be the strongest setbacks policy of any state and banning the use of carbon capture and sequestration for enhanced oil recovery, he’s also leading California to hand over billions to the oil and gas industry with mythic, oversized carbon capture and removal targets,” said Isa Flores-Jones, Communications Manager, California Environmental Justice Alliance. “These carbon removal targets are a poison pill riding alongside common sense public health and climate policy.” 

Will the Legislature support a setbacks bill — after rejecting legislation for setbacks twice?

Now that Newsom has asked the state legislature to end neighborhood oil drilling as part of a climate package, the question is whether the Legislature, which has failed to pass health and safety setback bills a couple of times over the past two years because of the enormous influence of the Big Oil lobby, will support the legislation. 

A May 2022 update to its Tracking the Dirty Dollars Project by Sierra Club California provides some clarity why California’s environmental policies don't live up to the “green” words of the state’s politicians. This update reveals that only 15 legislators have not received campaign contributions from polluters and their allies since January 1, 2021.

This election season, polluting industries have already spent more than $1.8 million in contributions to candidates’ campaigns, the Sierra Club reported.

You can read the full overview for this report here and the report spreadsheets here.

The Club said the number of legislators that report more than $10,000 in dirty donations has grown from 17 in their last edition to a whopping 58 in this edition. Thirty-one legislators have received more than $20,000, 10 have received more than $30,000, and 3 have received more than $40,000 in contributions from oil and gas interests.

“As Californians fill out their ballots in the coming weeks, it’s more important than ever that transparent resources like the Dirty Dollars project exist to help inform their voting decisions,” said Brandon Dawson, director of Sierra Club California. “This election will be crucial in determining if Sacramento has the leadership necessary to confront the climate crisis, and voters should take into account the contributions that candidates accept from polluting interests as they cast their votes.”

Democratic Senator Steve Glazer leads all legislators, reporting $66,000 in contributions from dirty donors, according to the Club. The vast majority of these contributions were directed to his campaign for State Controller. A large portion of these contributions came directly from the likes of Phillips 66, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Valero.

“Republican Assemblymember Heath Flora placed second in total dirty donations with $53,000 dirty dollars. Asm. Flora is one of many Republicans who’ve accepted dirty donations this campaign cycle. So far, the California Republican Party Political Action Committee has accepted $1,245,175 in donations from polluting industries,” the Club stated.

“Unfortunately, many Democrats in the Assembly reported high dirty donation totals. Among the Assembly Democrats, Asm. Tom Daly leads with $44,100 dirty dollars. Asm. Jim Cooper, a Democratic favorite of the oil and gas industry, reported $36,350 in contributions from polluters and their friends,” the Club revealed.

“Other unsurprising names on the high-roller list include Asm. Tim Grayson ($32,900), Asm. Freddie Rodriguez ($31,000), Asm. Blanca Rubio ($31,000), Asm. Sharon Quirk Silva ($29,695), Asm. James Ramos ($28,000), Asm. Adam Gray ($27,200), Asm. Jose Medina ($26,700), Asm. Carlos Villapudua ($24,400), and Asm. Rudy Salas Jr. ($23,300). The California Democratic Party PAC accepted $60,000 in dirty dollars,” the group concluded.

Sierra Club California launched the Tracking the Dirty Dollars Project in November 2020 to shed light on oil and gas contributions to legislators and other state-level elected officials. The project sorts through existing public databases to identify who receives contributions from oil and gas companies and their allies through direct campaign contributions, independent expenditure campaigns, and gifts. 

A cover report discussing the November installment and the data sheets comprising the three installments is available on Sierra Club California’s website. More information about the project is included in a November 2020 blog e-mailed to Sierra Club members and supporters around the state. 

CalGEM has approved 11,669 oil drilling permits since 2019

Newsom released his climate package as oil and gas regulators in California continue to issue thousands of oil and gas drilling permits every year. Second quarter permit approvals pushed the overall number of oil drilling permits approved since Newsom came to office in January 2019 to 11,669, according to an analysis by Consumer Watchdog and Fractracker Alliance. The permits are posted on a map at  

In the first two quarters of 2022, the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) issued 1,326 total permits, including 216 new well permits and 1,110 oil well rework permits.   

The groups revealed that State approvals for permits to fix or deepen existing oil wells skyrocketed in the second quarter by 124% over the same time last year. “Some of the permit approvals by CalGEM are for idle wells and wells that barely produce, and both types can leak deadly methane and other harmful pollutants,” they said.

“These are permit approvals to rework old wells that the oil industry wants to squeeze dry,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker. “The state makes it far cheaper for oil companies to continue beating a dead horse than cement those wells shut, including wells that will never come back online or only produce 10 or 15 barrels of crude a day.  State policy is misguided.  Newsom should mandate that any wells near or in neighborhoods and any that are idle for more than a few years or barely producing oil should be shuttered to stop and prevent leaks.”

She noted that Bakersfield residents over the past month have discovered more than 40 idle wells leaking methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) belonging to five different oil companies in suburban subdivisions of Bakersfield.  Residents experienced fatigue, headaches and stomachaches. VOCs can negatively affect breathing, the nervous system and cause cancer.

“This can be attributed to CalGEM's policy of conducting many of their inspections remotely from regulators’ desks, rather than conducting in-person inspections at the well sites in the field,” said Kyle Ferrar, a coordinator for FracTracker Alliance. "Oil and gas companies can use these reworks to continue to kick the bucket down the road instead of paying the necessary costs to plug these idle wells. That's because there is very little oversight from CalGEM and no repercussions for leaking wells, as we have seen in Bakersfield." 

During the second quarter, permit approvals to drill both new oil and gas production wells and wells using harsh and dangerous methods of extraction known as “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR), fell by half over the second quarter last year though permits to specifically drill new EOR wells rose by 10%, the groups stated.  

“Of all 2022 permit approvals to rework wells, 31% were issued for idle wells,” according to Ferrar.  “Available data makes it hard to determine how long the wells have been idle. Legislation passed several years ago requires the agency to provide an annual list of idle wells, their age, and their status. CalGEM published the last report in 2019 and has not published another since.”

“According to oil industry information gathered by the California Council on Science and Technology, there are at least 70,000 idle wells in the state, and many are 20-40 years old. Some have been idle for 80 years. That's 40,000 more idle wells than officially reported by CalGEM,” Ferrar reported.

“It is critically important that the public has access to the list of idle wells as many could be leaking in urban and suburban settings and residents don’t even know that they are there,” added Tucker. “There are tens of thousands of these wells and they can be like ticking time-bombs for nearby communities.”

Hazardous spill reports filed by CalGEM showed some of the Bakersfield wells were releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, at concentrations of above 50,000 parts per million. These are public health hazards, since at these outdoor concentrations, just the click of a lighter can cause an explosion and the same indoor levels can be deadly to residents, according to PSE Healthy Energy, a research institute, stated Tucker.  

California oil and gas regulators have also approved 150 offshore drilling permits in state waters since January 1, 2019. Of those permits, five were for new wells and the rest were for reworking existing wells, according to Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance.

Big Oil spends Big Money on lobbying to get what it wants 

As the oil and gas industry pumped barrel-fulls of cash into the campaign coffers of California legislators, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in Sacramento, spent over $17.5 million lobbying the California Legislature and other state officials over the past three years.  

In the first quarter of 2022, WSPA continued its lobbying spending spree, dumping $952,366.91 into lobbying California officials, according to the latest data from the California Secretary of State’s website. Chevron spent even more money than WSPA in lobbying, $1,016,168.17, during the quarter.

However, it wasn’t either WSPA or Chevron that topped the fossil fuel lobbying expenses in the first quarter. Sempra Energy and Affiliates, including SoCalGas and the San Diego Gas and Electric Company, moved into first place with $1,961,178.39 in expenses in just the three month period.  

Altogether, WSPA, Chevron, Sempra and other oil and gas corporations and trade associations pumped a total of $6 million into advancing the fossil fuel industry agenda in 2022’s first quarter.  

The Big Oil spending spree continued in 2022’s second quarter. While Californians suffer from soaring gas prices, extreme drought and wildfires, Big Oil and WSPA spent $10 million in the first half of 2022 to lobby CA lawmakers “against life-saving clean air regulations and push fossil fuel industry lies,” said Alexandra Nagy, California Director of Sunstone Strategies:

Over the past four years, fossil fuel companies paid almost $77.5 million to lobby lawmakers in Sacramento, reported  Josh Slowiczek in Capital and Main on May 14.

“Oil and gas interests spent four times as much as environmental advocacy groups and almost six times as much as clean energy firms on lobbying efforts in California between 2018 and 2021, according to a Capital & Main analysis — reflecting the intensity of the industry’s efforts to influence policy in a state whose leaders have vowed to build an energy future free of fossil fuels,” Slowiczek wrote.  

California remains a major oil and gas producing state, although it has declined from its place as the nation’s third largest oil producer over the past several years. The state was 7th (2021) and 14th (2020) for oil and marketed natural gas production, respectively, among the 50 states, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Production of oil was about 131M barrels in 2021 and continues to decline from the 1985 peak

WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 8 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; (7) contributing to non profit organizations; and (8) sponsoring awards ceremonies, including those for legislators and journalists. 

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