Los Angeles, CA—The total number of oil drilling permits approved since Governor Gavin Newsom he took office reached nearly 15,000 in the first quarter of 2023, FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog said today. The two groups and many others belonging to the Last Chance Alliance condemned the approvals—particularly the 62% of approvals for oil operations within 3,200 feet of marginalized communities.
See reaction from the Last Chance Alliance championing environmental justice and a swift transition away from oil production here: https://lastchancealliance.org/in-response-to-governor-newsom-drilling-permits-last-chance-alliance-groups-released-the-following-statements/
Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance track and map new well approvals at the site www.NewsomWellWatch.com. Currently, 7.4 million Californians—nearly one in five—live within a mile of an active well. Risk of harm from chronic exposure to toxic emissions from wells has been documented among residents who live up to 6.2 miles from a well.
“The California Geologic Energy Management Division still has not gotten the memo that allowing any increased oil extraction within one kilometer of communities is not acceptable,” said Consumer Advocate Liza Tucker. “The oil industry had the audacity to challenge a state law establishing that health protective setback by qualifying a referendum to overturn it. Shame on CalGEM for not following through to protect communities despite that nefarious effort.”
“FracTracker’s analyses have shown that prioritizing the health of marginalized communities by keeping oil and gas operations outside of health protection zones will have a minimal effect on statewide oil production. Yet, CalGEM continues to bend to the whim of the oil and gas industry,” said FracTracker Coordinator Kyle Ferrar. “We applaud the administration for taking a stand against new drilling by awarding only one new drilling permit this quarter, but the large number of permits for work on existing wells also harm the health of frontline communities.”
During the first quarter of 2023, CalGEM approved a total of 897 permits throughout the state, a 40% uptick over the first quarter of 2022. All but one for new drilling were for work on existing wells, including fixing, deepening, and redrilling them. Permits for work on existing wells rose 76% over the same period last year. See Table 1.
In the first quarter, 62% of all the permits approved in the setback zone—totaling 556—were primarily to repair or redirect drilling in existing wells to more productive geologic formations.
An independent scientific advisory panel had advised CalGEM that a 3,200-foot setback—or one kilometer–between homes, schools, daycares, hospitals, and other sensitive receptors was the minimum distance to protect public health. Nevertheless, Californian women living within 6.2 miles of at least one oil or gas well during pregnancy have an increased risk of low-birthweight babies. Proximity to active oil operations increases the risk of premature birth by 40% and the chances of a high-risk pregnancy by 30%.
California is the only major oil-producer to currently lack a setback when other extraction states including North Dakota, Colorado and Texas have instituted them. After going into effect in January, SB 1137 (Gonzalez) was suspended until the next ballot after oil companies paid for enough signatures to qualify the referendum on false pretenses.
California advocacy groups are now demanding that the state regulate how petition signature collection is conducted. According to Legal Planet, a collaboration between Berkeley and UCLA law schools, “Big Oil’s well-funded signature-gathering campaign has been tainted amid reports of petition circulators telling ‘blatant lies’ to secure signatures. These alleged lies range from the spurious claim that the petition exists “to lower gas prices,” to the outright false assertion that the referendum would prohibit neighborhood oil and gas operations (probably a successful strategy, considering Californians’ overwhelming support for buffer zones between residences and oil extraction sites).”
In general, the oil industry applies for more permits to fix (rework) wells than it does to drill new ones. It takes a shorter time to obtain such permits. The trends of permitting rates, provided in Figure 1 below by FracTracker, shows an enormous jump in oil permit applications in September 2022, right after SB 1137 passed, and another big jump in December, right before the law went into effect. In January, when SB 1137 had the force of law, permits applications fell sharply. At the start of February when the referendum to overturn the law qualified, permit applications zoomed up again.
“In January, the oil industry understood that the law was in effect,” said FracTracker’s Ferrar. “After the referendum qualified, they understood that they could freely apply for permits once again. The oil industry figured they had it in the bag and business as usual could proceed because the referendum’s qualifying for the ballot technically paused the setback law.”
Figure 1. Permit Application Counts
CalGEM’s treatment of applications to perform hydraulic fracturing (fracking) differs sharply from their treatment of applications for oil drilling and other operations within the setback zone. Governor Newsom banned fracking as of January 1, 2024 with an executive order issued in April 2021, but CalGEM has not approved any more fracking permits since December 1, 2021.
“It is a mystery why the Administration took a stance against permitting new fracking and CalGEM has backed that up, but CalGEM continues to approve oil permits near marginalized communities when both the Governor and the legislature backed the creation of a setback on the grounds of protecting public health and the environment,” said Tucker. “Certainly, the Governor and CalGEM have the authority to enforce the setback on the same grounds.”