Oil Producers Financing Referendum Against Drilling Ban Received New Permits This Year To Drill In Public Health Safety Zone Ahead Of January Ban

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Los Angeles, CA—As a ban on permit approvals for oil drilling near vulnerable communities looms on January 1, oil drillers seeking to overturn the ban have received 86 permits for drilling closer to communities than the ban allows ahead of the deadline, according to a review by the FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog. 

These oil drillers currently operate thousands of wells within the banned distance and have kicked in $7.5 million of the total $9.2 million raised to overturn the law by gathering signatures to qualify a referendum.  
As of January 1, SB 1137 bans the approval of permits for drilling new wells or fixing old ones within a 3,200-foot setback but does not shut down any existing wells. Out of the 16 drillers financing the effort, half won 86 permit approvals for work within the zone in the first nine months of 2022, FracTracker Alliance analysis shows. (See Table 1 below.) More than one in five of all oil permits approved statewide in the third quarter were for well work within the setback and drillers have two years to use them.  
Overall, permits dispensed statewide by the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) in the first nine months of 2022 jumped by one third over the same period last year. More than two thirds were to fix or deepen wells rather than drill new ones, continuing a statewide trend. All permit updates are posted on a map at www.newsomwellwatch.com 
“After a decade of vulnerable communities fighting for this setback and finally getting it, oil drillers know the jig is up and they won’t get new permits for wells near residences after January 1, and so are now trying to upend the law,” said Consumer Advocate Liza Tucker. “State oil regulators should hold off on any fourth quarter permit approvals within the setback zone, just as they have been holding off on approvals of fracking permits ahead of a 2024 ban on that practice.”
“CalGEM and the administration understand perfectly that permitting new wells and reworking wells near homes, schools, hospitals and other receptors puts communities at undue risk of exposure to toxic and carcinogenic pollutants,” said Kyle Ferrar, Western Coordinator at FracTracker Alliance. “In light of this, regulators should stop all new permitting immediately.”

 Table 1. Oil Company Financing/Setback Permits Granted

permits chart

CA Secretary of State Contribution Filings/FracTracker Analysis of CalGEM Data

148 permit approvals statewide for work within the setback were granted in the third quarter to fix existing wells, while only two permits were granted to drill new wells inside the setback, both in Oxnard.

Currently, more than one quarter of existing wells throughout the state are located within the setback. More than two million Californians live within half a mile of a well and another five million live within a mile. The setback is set at six-tenths of a mile from communities, but even living within 2.5 miles of a well exposes Californians to levels of air pollution linked to asthma, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, preterm birth and other long term health effects. See:https://www.ehn.org/oil-and-natural-gas-industry-air-pollution-2655333610.html

Statewide, approvals for all permit types rose 21% this quarter over the same quarter last year. (See Table 2 below.) But permits granted for work on existing wells jumped 59% while permit approvals to drill new wells plunged 55%, according to FracTracker’s analysis. In the first nine months this year, 68% of all approved permits were to fix or deepen existing wells. On a positive note, in the third quarter, no new fracking permits were approved, and permits to plug wells rose 30%, according to CalGEM data analyzed by FracTracker Alliance. (See 3rd Quarter Permit Table). 

Table 2. Third Quarter (2022) Permit Count Table

permit count table

 FracTracker Alliance Analysis of CalGEM Data


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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