By Janet Wilson, THE DESERT SUN
September 24, 2020
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday vowed to work with the state legislature to phase out new permits for hydraulic fracking by 2024, but left untouched a more widely used oil extraction technique in the state that has been linked to hundreds of oil spills.
Hydraulic fracking – a technique in which water, sand or chemicals are injected into the earth to fracture formations and loosen up oil – accounts for about 2% of the state’s oil production, Newsom said.
The governor said he does not have the power to halt fracking, but that beginning Jan. 1, 2021, he would work with the legislature in its next session to push to legally phase out new fracking permits in less than four years.
California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said when state legislators passed stringent requirements on hydraulic fracking in 2013, they also specifically made it legal, and the law would need to be changed.
The proposed phase-out of hydraulic fracturing would not cover a similar technique known as steam fracking or high-pressure cyclic steaming, which has been linked to worker and wildlife injuries and deaths. Steam fracking involves the injection of scalding steam, without chemicals, below ground to fracture formations.
Over the past two decades, Chevron and other oil companies have earned millions harvesting oil from spills linked to high-pressure cyclic steaming, according to a recent investigation by The Desert Sun and ProPublica.
Newsom and Crowfoot insisted on Wednesday that the state has made clear it has zero tolerance for the spills. They said a moratorium had been placed on steam fracking while studies are completed about whether it can be done safely and about how to transition the state in a fair way off of oil extraction.
In fact, the moratorium only covers new permits for high-pressure cyclic steaming. That leaves oil companies with existing permits free to continue using the technique.
The governor said a draft of the first study on steam fracking would be complete soon.
“We’ve been very aggressive in terms of our enforcement,” said Newsom when asked about the spills at a press conference. “We put a moratorium on cyclic steam fracking a number of months ago, and we have strategies in place being advanced specifically” by the California Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, the main state agency regulating the oil industry.
He said the state had also invested substantially in CalGEM, with stepped-up enforcement, more staffing and new leadership.
Crowfoot echoed the governor, saying: “We have a zero-tolerance policy moving forward for these inland oil spills, also known as surface expressions. CalGEM is implementing right now a strengthened rule that passed in April 2019. … Our experts are very focused on this.”
He said the number of spills has gone down, but if more needed to be done to fully implement the new ban and ensure no more spills, it would be.
Some environmental attorneys said they believed Newsom did have the power to act without the legislature.
“Newsom should use his power to end these ultrahazardous (hydraulic fracking and steam fracking) practices today,” said Kassie Seigel, head of the Climate Law Center at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Just passing the buck to the legislature makes no sense.”
Stanford environmental law professor Deborah Sivas said the governor and state oil regulators already have “pretty sweeping power to oversee new wells” under existing state public resource codes, and that as she reads it, that authority was expanded a few years ago with regard to fracking. Sivas said while she understood Newsom might be hoping to avoid a lawsuit, litigation was likely inevitable, so he could save time by acting now.
“Sure, it would be safer from the governor’s perspective to get a new law on the books,” said Silva. “But even then, the state won’t avoid a lawsuit from industry arguing that the exercise of such authority is a taking of property rights. So if the governor wants to take a bold step now on climate policy, CalGEM could exercise its existing authority and defend the inevitable lawsuit now, rather than spend the next few year or two getting legislation adopted and then still have to defend the inevitable lawsuit.”
Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), said Newsom’s moves on Wednesday – which also included a phase-out of sales of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035 – would cost jobs.
“Let’s be clear: today’s announcement to curb in-state production of energy will put thousands of workers in the Central Valley, Los Angeles basin, and Central Coast on the state’s overloaded unemployment program, drive up energy costs when consumers can least afford it, and hurt California’s fight to lower global greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
Newsom and CalGEM’s leaders have come under fire from environmental and public health groups frustrated by the number of new drilling and fracking permits issued since he took office.
The Desert Sun and two consumer groups each tallied new hydraulic fracking permits last year, and found the pace at which they were being issued had doubled during Newsom’s first six months in office compared to the previous year when Jerry Brown was governor. Newsom fired the then-head of the oil regulatory agency the next day.
The consumer groups, Consumer Watchdog and Fratracker, are concerned that after a nine-month moratorium on hydraulic fracking that began in July 2019, they say CalGEM issued 48 new fracking permits between April and July 2020. CalGEM disputes the numbers, and says the fracking permits were issued after a rigorous review by federal scientists.
Newsom’s order confirmed a process is underway to scientifically study and then possibly propose a “public and safety” regulation that could include a large buffer and set a firm deadline of Dec. 31 to release a draft of the proposal. Other rulemaking processes, including one that banned the inland spills, have taken years to complete.
Ingrid Brostrom, an environmental justice attorney and Assistant Director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, said: “Millions of Californians are suffering from the ill effects of living near oil and gas drilling. And, California remains one of the only oil-producing states without an oil/gas safety buffer zone,” she said. “To be a climate justice leader, Newsom needs to adopt setbacks immediately.”
Others offered measured praise for Newsom’s announcement.
“We applaud Gov. Newsom’s actions today, but we urge him to keep his foot on the accelerator on the road to comprehensive clean energy. More must be done to keep Californians safe from oil drilling,” said Dan Jacobsen, state director with Environment California.