California oil regulators have issued 15,722 oil drilling permits since January 2019

Marge Grow-Eppard, Miwok, begins the climate justice protest in Old Sacramento to end fossil fuels with a prayer on September 17. Photo by Dan Bacher. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

Los Angeles, CA—While Governor Gavin Newsom has received accolades from the media and environmental NGOs for his recent lawsuit against decades of deception by Big Oil, his administration has at the same time approved a total of 15,722 new and reworked oil wells since January 2019.

This year CalGEM, the state’s oil and gas regulator, “has gone rogue,” approving hundreds of oil permits in vulnerable communities breathing poisonous emissions from both active and idle wells, according to a report by Consumer Watch and FracTracker Alliance.

The two groups also revealed that the regulator has worked to undermine AB 1167 in the legislature and with the governor. “AB 1167 (Carrillo) is a critical bill to raise billions in bonding from oil companies seeking to sell unproductive wells to ensure plugging costs are covered, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance,” the groups stated.

“Governor Newsom must both stop CalGEM’s reckless regulators from issuing permits for drilling in the midst of vulnerable communities and ignore CalGem’s efforts to undermine AB 1167,” said Consumer Advocate Liza Tucker. “He must sign this legislation immediately to ensure that the state has enough oil industry bonding to plug idle and orphaned oil wells that poison communities with their emissions—especially because CalGEM is approving so many rework permits in communities.”

“Big oil is able to shed debt by transferring ownership of low producing wells to small shell companies, instead of paying to plug the wells themselves,” argued Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Director for FracTracker Alliance. “Rework permits allow these shell companies to continue producing small amounts of oil, until the companies go bankrupt, leaving the plugging and remediation costs to California taxpayers. Big oil has been reaping profits from California oil for decades–with vulnerable communities paying the highest price with their health–and must be required to assure the state that their mess will be cleaned up.”

More than 100 groups are urging Newsom to sign AB 1167: see the letter here.

According to financial think tank Carbon Tracker, Decommissioning California’s oil and gas infrastructure could exceed all future net cash flows from production by up to $21 billion dollars, making it critical for Newsom to sign the bill to protect taxpayers.

The total number of new oil and gas permits issued since Newsom took office in 2019 swelled to an amazing 15,722, according to CalGEM data crunched by FracTracker Alliance.

During the first nine months of 2023, CalGEM approved at least 820 permits to rework/redrill existing wells in vulnerable communities living within 3,200 feet of oil drilling operations, according to a new FracTracker report.

The good news? Overall, permitting slowed in the third quarter of 2023 over the year before, falling 65%. (See Table 1 below). For a complete permit update, see:

“Specifically, permits to drill new wells dropped by 85% this quarter and 95% for the year—a direct result of Governor Newsom prioritizing frontline communities and protection of the climate over oil industry profits. Nevertheless, California regulator CalGEM continues to approve new drilling and rework permits within 3,200 feet of homes, healthcare facilities, and schools,” the groups revealed.

“Frontline communities continue to face a double threat as the counts of idle and aging wells go up and they continue to be orphaned, leaking emissions because oil companies have not been forced or even incentivized to plug them,” said FracTracker’s Ferrar. “In fact, approvals for plugging wells fell by 25% over the same quarter last year—oil companies don’t want to spend the money to plug poorly producing wells and would rather transfer them to small or insolvent companies.”

Table 1. Counts of New Permits. The table presents the counts of CalGEM permits issued during the third quarter of 2023, and compares them to the third quarter of 2022.

“I want to be clear that this isn't a numbers game for us,” stressed Kobi Naseck, Coalition Director for VISIÓN (Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods). “The reality is that even a single permit to continue or begin new drilling within the named health and safety buffer zone is an unacceptable attack on our families and our communities. We should all be concerned to see these patterns continue at CalGEM in the year 2023. What we need most right now is an end to drilling and a Governor who will follow the Legislature’s leadership and hold Big Oil accountable by signing AB 1167.”

WSPA and Big Oil pump Big Money into influencing California regulators

Why do California regulators continue to approve hundreds of new and reworked oil drilling permits each quarter?

It’s all due to deep regulatory capture by Big Oil and Big Gas in the “green” and “progressive” state of California. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), Chevron and the oil companies exercise their influence and power through a very sophisticated public relations machine in California and the U.S.  

WSPA describes itself as “non-profit trade association” that represents companies that account for the bulk of petroleum exploration, production, refining, transportation and marketing in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. WSPA’s headquarters is located right here on L Street in Sacramento.  

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the President and CEO of WSPA, is the former chair of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force for the South Coast to create “marine protected areas” in the same region that she was lobbying for new offshore drilling.  

Since 2009 I have documented how WSPA and the oil companies 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) sponsoring awards ceremonies and dinners, including those for legislators and journalists; (7) contributing to non profit organizations; and (8) creating alliances with labor unions, mainly construction trades.

The oil and gas industry spent over $34.2 million in the 2021-22 Legislative Session lobbying against SB 1137, legislation to mandate 3200 foot buffer zones around oil and gas wells, and other bills they were opposed to:…  

For the oil companies, this was just pocket change when you consider that combined profits of California oil refiners, including PBF Energy, Chevron, Marathon Petroleum, Valero, and Phillips 66, were $75.4 billion in 2022.  

The two biggest spenders were WSPA and Chevron. WSPA spent $11.7 million in the 2021-22 session, while Chevron spent a total of $8.6 million lobbying California officials.

Lobbying disclosures from Quarter 2 of 2023 reveal that oil companies and trade associations spent more than $3 million lobbying and a grand total of $4,085,639 in just three months to shape policy making efforts in its favor in California. That brings the total spent by Big Oil and WSPA to over $13.4 million total in the first six months of 2023, putting them on track to exceed the 2022 expenditure of $18 million.   

Chevron topped the lobbying expenses with $1,139,130, while WSPA placed second with $716,824.  

The latest disclosures follow the $9.4 million that Big Oil spent to influence the California Legislature, Governor’s Office and agencies in the first quarter of 2023. Chevron came in first with over $4.9 million spent in the first quarter, while the WSPA finished second with over $2.3 million and Aera Energy finished third with nearly $628,000.  

WSPA sponsors media dinners and awards for journalists

This year Big Oil has launched a chilling campaign to sponsor dinners, awards ceremonies and conferences for journalists and the media. WPSA sponsored a “media dinner” on Tuesday, February 28 in Sacramento as part of #BizFedSactoDays.

The flyer for the event stated, “Journalists who play an outsize role in shaping narratives about state politics and holding lawmakers accountable will join business leaders to pull back the curtain on how they select and tell stories about California policies, policy and power.”

Speakers at the program included Coleen Nelson of the Sacramento Bee, Laurel Rosenhall of the Los Angeles Times, Kaitlyn Schallhorn of the Orange County Register and Dan Walters of Cal Matters.

More recently, the Sacramento Press Club announced that WSPA was a new “Lede Sponsor” of the Sacramento Press Club's Journalism Awards Reception that was held on March 29. Sadly, only two journalists, myself and Aaron Cantu of Capital and Main, publicly challenged the funding of journalist awards by Big Oil.  

In addition to sponsoring journalism events in California, the Western States Petroleum Association has expanded its campaign to influence journalists nationally. WSPA and the controversial waste management firm Veolia North America sponsored events at this year’s Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) conference in Boise, Idaho, according to a report from DeSmog: 

The agenda for the conference, hosted in Boise, Idaho, revealed that WSPA and the waste management company Veolia North America sponsored two of the “beat dinners” hosted on April 21, the article by Sam Bright reported.

When #BigOil teams up with journalists, columnists and editors at events and only a couple of writers think there’s something wrong with this, you know we must be in deep trouble.

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