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Newsom Administration Doubles New Oil And Gas Production Well Permits, Misses Deadline for Drilling Setback Rule

Tue, 01/19/2021 - 09:01
Posted in:
Oil Drilling

Los Angeles, CA — California oil regulators more than doubled the dispensing of permits in 2020 to drill new oil and gas production wells, issuing more than 1,700 in 2020, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance reported today. 

At the same time, the Newsom Administration failed to meet its own New Year’s Eve deadline for a draft rule designating the safe distance for drilling from a community, giving itself until Spring.  Public interest groups who have pushed for a 2,500-foot setback are troubled by the delay. States such as Colorado have instituted setbacks of 2,000 feet.

Largely because of a moratorium on high pressure cyclic steaming—a dangerous technique burning carbon-emitting natural gas to make steam used to coax stubborn oil out of the ground-- permits for all types of drilling dropped 14%.  Very few drilling permits were used to drill new wells -- only 60 new wells were drilled in 2020.

The two groups updated the permit numbers and locations on an interactive map at the website: http://www.NewsomWellWatch.com.  Newsom Well Watch also links to video footage capturing leaking infrastructure at half a dozen well sites receiving drilling permits near communities under the Newsom Administration.

“These twin developments of putting off a setback between people and oil drilling with a doubling of permits for oil and gas production wells that foul the air and water near communities reflects a failure by the Newsom Administration to show it is serious about protecting communities living with oil and gas extraction every day,” said Consumer Advocate Liza Tucker. “Instead, it is prioritizing oil profits and continued climate-killing emissions over public health.”

Roughly ten percent of permits issued are for wells too close to communities. Based on peer-reviewed studies, a setback of at least one mile is warranted to decrease risk of cancer, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and neurological diseases. Communities are demanding a minimum setback of 2,500 feet between themselves and oil drilling operations.

More than two million Californians live within half a mile of a well, while seven million live within a mile. California is one of a few major oil producing states without a statewide setback. A draft rule was due by December 31, 2020.

Meantime, oil regulators at the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) of the Department of Conservation kept up a breakneck pace of granting permits for the drilling of new oil and gas production wells in 2020, driving them up 116% over 2019, according to Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance. Air and water-degrading emissions from such wells present the biggest health risk to nearby communities. Rolling in permits for all other types of drilling, the number of permits fell 14%.

“California may call itself a climate leader, but the state has done nothing to address the harms of oil and gas extraction within its borders,” said Kyle Ferrar of the FracTracker Alliance. “The number of wells actually drilled may have decreased, but it is strictly a result of the downturn in the market resulting from Covid-19. Policy-makers should take this opportunity to create a strategy for the future of California oil and gas extraction that prioritizes the health and safety of Frontline Communities and the climate.”

While permits to drill new production wells soared, a Newsom moratorium issued in November 2019 on dangerous high-pressure cyclic steaming permits contributed to an overall plunge of 82% in permits granted for new wells using dangerous extraction techniques to pry oil from increasingly depleted wells. Chevron’s use of cyclic steaming led to a major leak in Kern last year. This plunge pushed down by 14% the number of all permits granted in 2020 over 2019. (See Table 1 below.)

Table 1

The Newsom Administration issued 128 fracking permits in 2020, down 40% over 2019.  Fracking permits fell due to a nine-month moratorium imposed by Newsom in 2019 on their issuance. The administration resumed issuing fracking permits in April. During the first ten months of 2020, oil companies got 54 permits to frack. By December 31, oil companies had rushed in enough permit applications to wind up with 128 new permits.

Companies winning fracking permits included Aera Energy, a major client of Newsom’s friend and lobbyist Jason Kinney whose birthday dinner Newsom later regretted attending.

The number of wells plugged grew by 28% over 2019.  But the number of permits to drill or rework wells is still outpacing permits to plug them. Oil regulators issued 3,745 new permits to drill in 2020 versus 3,423 to plug wells.  

“It is time for the people of California to see more permits issued to plug up and abandon wells than to drill them,” said Tucker.  “Especially in light of the devastation that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels causes to both low-income communities and the climate all of us share.”

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