California Proposes Nation’s Biggest Buffer Zone Between New Oil Wells, Homes

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By Janet Wilson, THE DESERT SUN

October 21, 2021

California officials on Thursday proposed what they called the nation’s toughest public health protections governing oil and gas drilling. They said the regulations would include a 3,200-foot buffer between new oil wells and homes and schools, and stiffer monitoring, reporting and controls on vapors, leaks, and other harmful emissions at tens of thousands of existing wells and pipelines.

“Our reliance on fossil fuels has resulted in more kids getting asthma, more children born with birth defects, and more communities exposed to toxic, dangerous chemicals,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom. “California is taking a significant step to protect the more than two million residents who live within a half-mile of oil drilling sites, many in low income and communities of color.”

Newsom boasted at an announcement at the Boys and Girls Club in Wilmington, a Latino neighborhood in Southern California heavily affected by oil and gas production, that the rules would not only provide the nation’s largest buffer zones, but would get rid of loopholes contained in other states’ smaller buffer zones. Colorado, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming currently require smaller setbacks between wells and homes than California’s proposal. 

But a review of the draft rules by The Desert Sun shows they appear to contain provisions that allow existing wells near homes to be extensively upgraded and new production equipment to be added to extend neighborhood oil extraction for years. 

The proposal also says water quality testing requirements may be waived in certain cases. There are also exceptions to well-plugging requirements and use of oil-based fluids on a “case by case basis” where it would be “impracticable” to comply with the tougher regulations. 

In response to questions, Newsom administration spokespeople said to continue operating, “facilities would have to comply with the suite of approximately 20 different pollution controls and monitoring requirements designed to protect public health and ensure communities near extraction are not exposed to harmful pollution.”

“If you look at setbacks in other states, such as Colorado, they only cover new wells and contain numerous exceptions and off-ramps,” Deputy Natural Resources Secretary Lisa Lien-Mager said in an email.  She said the proposal “requires wells that will be plugged and abandoned to have cement placed from cleanout depth to surface. An example where it may be impracticable to require cement to surface is when the well is extremely deep, requiring large volumes of cement that are unrealistic, or if the bottom of the well cannot hold the cement and a plug is needed.”

Environmental justice advocates and elected officials who represent areas where oil and gas drilling sit cheek by jowl with neighborhoods were overjoyed by the announcement, though some said the regulation should ban all wells.

“Governor Newsom … is now listening to the front-line communities and health professionals,” said Martha Dina Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. “Until we phase out all drilling, our communities will continue to be at risk from day-to-day operations and the continuous threat of catastrophic accidents like we saw in Orange County.”

Two and half weeks ago, a ruptured underwater pipeline spewed crude oil into the Pacific Ocean and tar balls and oily slicks washed up on Southern California beaches. Coast Guard investigators say a massive freighter ship may have dragged across the pipeline sometime in the past several months.

Although that spill occurred in federal waters, the proposed regulations add numerousrequirements for pipeline inspections and monitoring in state jurisdictions.

“There’s really no two ways about it, extracting oil and gas is a dirty business and it’s had a harmful impact on Californians,” said Cal-EPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld, who pointed to research showing benzene, formaldehyde and other emissions are known carcinogens, for instance. “This is a very important rule.”

The vast majority of Californians who live near a pumpjack or other active production equipment are low-income residents or people of color in greater Los Angeles or Central Valley communities, stretching from Wilmington and Long Beach through downtown Los Angeles and up to Bakersfield, Arvin, Lost Hills and Fresno.

The soonest the new regulations could be adopted would be 2023, after a 60-day public comment period, a required economic impact study, and scrutiny by the Office of Administrative Law that is supposed to be completed within a year.

California, which has some of the nation’s oldest oil fields, has seen production decline steadily since the mid-1980’s but is still the nation’s seventh-largest oil producer. 

In response to questions about why the 3,200-buffer-zone wouldn’t apply to existing wells, Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, in a media briefing Wednesday afternoon referred to private property rights

Other jurisdictions have struggled with how to impose buffer zones that would require shutting down existing wells without ending up in court for taking property or paying huge costs for eminent domain proceedings. 

Crowfoot said he believes the proposed rules would be “legally durable.”

“We are working to ensure the harmful emissions are eliminated through installing the strongest  — and I can say unequivocally the strongest — engineering control and mitigation measures in the country, although I’d be confident to say the world as well,” Crowfoot said of the new requirements on existing wells.

But the state’s main oil regulator, the California Geologic Energy Management Division or CalGEM, has long struggled to finalize tough rules and to enforce them, as investigations by The Desert Sun with ProPublica have shown.

The new proposals took nearly two years to complete after Newsom ordered state officials to prepare them in November 2019, along with a moratorium on certain dangerous drilling practices. They were released after a panel of scientific experts led by the University of California, Berkeley, and from Yale, Columbia, the University of California, San Francisco, and other schools confirmed that residents living near active fossil fuel production zones have elevated risks of cancer, asthma, pregnancy problems and other issues. Some local governments have already established their own buffer regulations.

Environmental justice activists who have fought oil and gas drilling statewide for years were heartened by the announcement. They had sought a 2,500-foot buffer zone, but said evidence clearly shows adverse impacts within a kilometer, or about 3,200 feet.

“I’m excited that the number goes beyond what we asked for, because it gives the protection that studies show is needed,” said Cesar Aguirre, senior community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, headquartered in Kern County, where 70% of the state’s oil production occurs. He said having tough state regulations would help combat local pro-oil politics and policies.

But pushback against the proposed regulations was swift. In a lengthy statement, the West’s largest petroleum industry trade group assailed them as unscientific and harmful to the state’s economy and its workers.

“Just a few weeks ago, President Biden asked the OPEC nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Venezuela, specifically to produce more oil in order to bring energy costs down and ensure reliability. Today, Governor Newsom took an opposing path and proposed a setback regulation that could lead to increased costs and reduce the reliability of our energy supply. His decision was not based on what is best for Californians or science,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president and CEO of the Western States Petroleum Association.

She added: “The oil and gas industry is not opposed to setbacks and in fact, has supported many local setbacks that are based on science, data and rigorous health assessments. But this approach by the state will eliminate tax revenues and community benefits, raise costs for everyone and put thousands of people out of work.” 

Crowfoot said similar jobs properly shutting down thousands of wells that are no longer active could provide skilled work for years. He said state officials are committed to investing funds and policies to provide new jobs to workers who lose them as part of the state’s transition away from fossil fuels.

CalGEM’s last rulemaking took years to complete, and resulted in a watered-down ban on a dangerous, sometimes deadly extraction technique linked to hundreds of oil spills. Dozens of those oil spills, known as surface expressions, have been allowed to run for years and turned into ad hoc production sites, via industry-backed exemptions and loopholes in that regulation.

CalGEM officials were not part of the media briefing, but Crowfoot, who oversees the agency, acknowledged there had been “a lack of capacity” at the division in the past.

He said funding was provided for additional staffing this year, and more would likely be allocated to help the small agency. Blumenfeld said enforcement would be a collaborative effort, with the state’s air and water boards and its Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment already working with CalGEM and regional air districts  to design effective measures.  

Some advocates praised the overall framework, but criticized the exceptions in the proposed regulations.

“The buffer is a significant step forward, and has the potential to provide some long-overdue relief to communities suffering from fossil fuel pollution,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.  But he added,  “I don’t like the looks of the carve-out for new production facilities that replace old ones. That seems ripe for abuse.”

Liza Tucker with Consumer Watchdog agreed. “We need to make sure the rule is airtight and does not allow oil companies to continue to rework wells in frontline communities,” she said. “The rule does not ban permits to rework—meaning essentially re-drill—wells near communities. … That means more community exposure to dangerous emissions that come with drilling.”

Aguirre, theKern Countyenvironmental activist, cautioned that the proposed new rules could be further weakened in the process that lies ahead, and said a broad coalition of groups, including his, would stay vigilant to ensure meaningful protections from current well operations. “For the existing wells, having that kind of protection is going to have to be heavily enforced, and is going to take a lot of time and effort on (CalGEM’s) part.”

He added: “In Spanish, we have a saying, ‘From the bowl to your mouth, the soup will spill.’ So right now with that draft rule, we’re seeing the soup in the bowl, and now we’re waiting for it to come to the mouth, to be written into a law that will be able to be enforced and … that isn’t full of loopholes for existing wells. The devil will be in the details.”

Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun/USA Today network and writes USA Today’s Climate Point newsletter. Subscribe here. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @janetwilson66.

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