4th Quarter Oil Permit Approvals Show Steep Rise Within Protective Buffer Zones As State’s Top Oil Regulator Steps Down, Advocacy Groups Report

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Los Angeles, CA—The state Oil & Gas Supervisor at the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) has been relieved of his job against the backdrop of a 745% uptick in new oil drilling permits issued in the fourth quarter of 2022. Nearly half of these approvals (at least 100) allow producers to drill new wells within the state-mandated health and safety buffer zone of 3,200 feet near communities, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance said today. 

Oil & Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk had come under increasing pressure in recent months from climate justice and advocacy groups with Last Chance Alliance and VISIÓNto stop issuing new permits in the setback zone. For years, the agency has also lagged on a crucial public health rulemaking process on the topic of protective buffer zones, ignored more than 80,000 public comments on the issue, and made key data on oil and gas hazards inaccessible to the public. Ntuk’s resignation was first reported by the Bakersfield Californian

“CalGEM had gone rogue in permitting oil and gas wells, continuing the practice even when the Governor signed a law last year creating a strong setback zone of 3,200 feet between California homes and oil and gas operations,” said Consumer Advocate Liza Tucker. “We hope Uduak’s departure is a sign that Governor Newsom will appoint a successor who will crack down on new well approvals that threaten vulnerable communities.”

Under Newsom, the legislature passed S.B. 1137, setting a protective zone of 3,200 feet between sensitive receptors like homes, schools and healthcare sites and oil and gas operations. Now, the oil industry is on the verge of qualifying a referendum that could pause the law for two years. But CalGEM’s supervisor has had discretion to reject new permits that endanger communities.

“Given the record profits posted by oil and gas companies in 2022, the multibillion-dollar oil and gas industry does not need to drill these new wells in neighborhoods,” said Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator at FracTracker Alliance. “They’re already making record profits as it is. They don’t need to continue sacrificing frontline communities to protect their bottom lines.”

For decades, frontline community advocates have called for change in the agency. 

“Now is the time for Governor Newsom to appoint a leader who will enable CalGEM to do what Supervisor Ntuk could not: proceed with the years-delayed public health rulemaking process to make health and safety buffer zones permanent, make key information on hazards and their status available to the public, and actually do its job of regulating oil and gas,” said Kobi Naseck, Coalition Coordinator of Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods. “In California, that means taking action on behalf of low-income and non-white communities who live closest to toxic extraction sites. Whether or not the agency’s new leader will be another Big Oil-captured official or someone who is actually up to the task will signal if the Newsom Administration is really serious about this change.” 

In the fourth quarter, oil and gas permit approvals for all types of wells, as well as for rework permits for existing wells, rose 127% over the same quarter last year. (See Table 1 below.)  Out of 222 quarterly permits approved to drill new wells of all types, at least 100 of them were for wells within the setback zone of 3,200 feet, according to FracTracker Alliance analysis of CalGEM data. At the same time, permits to plug wells and remediate the environment fell nearly 10%. The groups track and map new well approvals at the site www.NewsomWellWatch.com

Table 1. Counts of new drilling and rework permits in the fourth quarter of 2022 versus the fourth quarter of 2021

Courtesy of FracTracker Alliance based on CalGEM data

“The oil industry appeared to be in a rush to get as many permits approved as possible overall and within the setback zone as it scrambled to qualify a referendum to undo the health and safety buffer zone law,” said Tucker. “Under Oil & Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk, CalGEM complied.”

For the year, permits to rework existing wells using both conventional and risky methods of extraction were up by 73%. Meanwhile the number of drilling permits for all well types fell by only two permits—four-tenths of one percent—over the total number issued last year.  At the same time, approvals for permits to plug wells and remediate the environment fell 20%.  (See Table 2 below.)

Table 2. Counts of new drilling and rework permits in 2022 versus 2021.

Courtesy of FracTracker Alliance based on CalGEM data

The trend of fewer permits issued to plug and abandon wells comes as no surprise following the recent discovery last spring of 41 leaking idle oil and gas wells in Bakersfield and the ensuing revelation of CalGEM’s lack of on-site inspections by regulators. 

Janet Wilson, the Desert Sun investigative journalist who broke the story on the leaking wells, also reportedthat CalGEM instructed inspectors to conduct crucial well inspections remotely in a bid by management to drive up the reporting of inspection numbers. Using a practice deemed “remote witnessing,” oil well reviews were done from the office rather than in-person in oil fields at great cost to the communities who live nearby. 

Rather than invest the money needed to protect public health and plug existing wells, the oil industry keeps idle wells running and pays the state low fees for doing so. CalGEM has yet to set a hard deadline on how long wells can remain idle before they must be plugged.  

Out of about 107,000 active and idle oil wells in the state, more than 70,000 are idle or economically marginal, barely yielding any oil, according to the California Council on Science & Technology.  And as industry bankruptcy trends continue, many of these idle wells could become orphan wells in coming years, leaving taxpayers with a billion-dollar tab to plug wells and clean up the mess. 

Governor Newsom’s administration and CalGEM need to prioritize stopping new drilling and pressuring operators to plug existing wells,” said Ferrar. “We urge Governor Newsom to work with grassroots groups and frontline communities to select a new CalGEM Director who can accomplish these priorities.”

“Ntuk’s dismissal is a consequence of his actions. He failed to live up to CalGEM’s new mission following the DOGGR scandal – protecting public health, which is evidenced in his recent approval of permits within the S.B. 1137 protective health zone,” said Cesar Aguirre with Central California Environmental Justice Network.“That’s his legacy, it’s what he chose to leave behind. Uduak-Joe was not aligned with the agency’s new mission, and this should have happened long ago. We’ll be watching the Newsom administration closely to see if the administration will make the appropriate changes to get CalGEM right on track.” 

“If the state wants to get serious about regulating a polluting industry that is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths—not to mention the increasing cost of the climate emergency in California—they can’t just replace one bad actor with another,” said Dan Ress, staff attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. “DOGGR may have changed its name to CalGEM, but for years under Uduak-Joe Ntuk’s leadership, the agency has remained ineffective and absent in its duty to regulate a toxic industry and protecting public health. Governor Newsom has the power to choose new leadership that will prioritize public health, end neighborhood drilling, and commit to environmental justice. We’ll be watching.” 

For more, see:  

https://www.consumerwatchdog.org/energy/oil-producers-financing-referendum-against-drilling-ban-received-new-permits-year-drill

and

https://www.consumerwatchdog.org/energy/consumer-groups-voice-support-gov-newsoms-windfall-profits-capprice-gouging-penalty

Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker is a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, following everything from oil and gas to the regulation of toxic substances in the state of California. She comes to us from Marketplace, the largest U.S. broadcast show on business and economics heard by ten million listeners each week on 400 radio stations. Liza worked at this public radio show for a decade, first as Commentary Editor and then as Senior Editor for both Washington and Sustainability News.

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