By Dustin Gardiner and J.D. Morris, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
April 24, 2021
SACRAMENTO – Gov. Gavin Newsom directed the state Friday to stop issuing permits for the oil extraction method known as fracking by January 2024 and to draw up plans to end all fossil-fuel drilling in California by 2045 – the most sweeping declaration of its kind in the nation.
“The climate crisis is real, and we continue to see the signs every day,” Newsom said in a statement. “As we move to swiftly decarbonize our transportation sector and create a healthier future for our children, I’ve made it clear I don’t see a role for fracking in that future and similarly believe that California needs to move beyond oil.”
Eliminating all extraction would have far-reaching consequences in California, the nation’s seventh-largest producer of crude oil. The state has long styled itself a leader in environmental policy and efforts to fight climate change – including a commitment by Newsom to end the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. But fossil fuels remain a pillar of the economy in some communities, especially Kern County, where pumpjacks are a common sight.
Environmental activists, whose patience with Newsom has worn thin as the state continued to approve new fracking permits, generally praised his new steps but said the timeline was too slow.
Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said that while Newsom’s move is “historic and globally significant … delay is the new denial, because we’re running out of time. When it comes to climate, we’re on the precipice of irreparable harm. Announcements about 2045 matter less than what happens today.”
Newsom’s declaration drew immediate protests from the oil and gas industry, whose leaders said it could cost the state thousands of jobs and make consumers more reliant on fossil fuels imported from other countries.
“Through all means possible, we will join with workers, community leaders and others who wish to protect access to safe, affordable and reliable energy to fight this harmful and unlawful mandate,” Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said in a statement.
Newsom and other state leaders have faced increasing pressure from environmental activists to take bolder steps to fight climate change, the dire impacts of which are becoming increasingly clear and urgent. California is now in the throes of another drought, roughly five years after the last one ended, and record-setting wildfires have repeatedly burned the state – exactly the kind of extreme conditions that scientists say are made more likely with large amounts of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere because of human activity.
Permits for fracking, formally referred to as hydraulic fracturing, expire one year after they’re issued, which means Newsom’s ban would effectively end fracking operations in California by the end of 2024.
Environmental groups turned up their pressure on Newsom after a bill to ban fracking and some other oil extraction methods died in the Legislature last week. That bill, SB467, would have stopped fracking permits next year and ended the other forms of extraction it targeted by 2035, a decade earlier than Newsom now envisions.
Democratic state Sens. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Monique Limón of Santa Barbara, who carried the bill, said Friday that they were thankful for Newsom’s move to end fracking and eventually all oil extraction in the state.
“While we believe an earlier end date is appropriate, at least having a set end date will trigger the long overdue conversation about what a transition away from oil looks like,” Wiener and Limón said in a statement.
They added that action from the Legislature would probably still be needed and said they were “ready to move that legislation.”
Before SB467 died, Newsom said he could not ban fracking without legislative approval. He did not elaborate Friday on why he believes his administration now has the authority to act alone. He said he has ordered the state Geologic Energy Management Division, the agency that regulates oil and gas extraction, to draft rules to ban fracking.
Fracking, in which high-pressure liquids are injected into the earth to release oil and gas deposits, accounts for only about 2% of California’s oil production, according to the state Department of Conservation. But it’s long been a controversial method because of what climate activists see as unacceptable dangers, including the possibility that it can contaminate groundwater.
SB467 faced resistance from the oil industry and labor groups, which said it would spell doom for nearly all oil production in California and cost thousands of jobs. Petroleum labor leaders promptly came out in opposition to Newsom’s announcement Friday.
About 7,700 Californians have jobs that are directly related to oil extraction, according to an October report from researchers at UC Santa Barbara. Industry leaders say the job impact of banning extraction would be far greater, and they bristled at SB467’s attempt to steer oil and gas workers into jobs cleaning up abandoned wells.
Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Association, called the governor’s move Friday “legally questionable” and said it would “undermine California’s climate leadership” in maintaining productive but strictly regulated oil and gas facilities.
Several state legislators from the Central Valley also protested. State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger Fresno County, said Newsom’s declaration on fracking could increase fuel costs for farmers and “could not come at a worse time for the Central Valley, which is already reeling from a drought.”
Newsom gave few details on how the state would phase out all oil production in less than 25 years. He said the state Air Resources Board, which regulates air pollution, will “analyze pathways to phase out oil extraction” by no later than 2045.
In short, the governor told the agency to study how to reach his goal. But that action does not carry the weight of an executive order, which would trigger a more formal legal process.
While the numbers of fracking and drilling permits approved by state regulators under Newsom’s administration have surged at times, permit approvals have fallen dramatically this year.
According to Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance, environmental advocacy groups, the number of new permits approved for oil and gas wells and other extraction methods is down 90% so far this year.
The groups said California approved 100 permits for new extraction sites in the first quarter, compared with 988 during the same period in 2020. Fracking permit approvals also dropped – 12 fracking permits were approved, compared with 21 during the same period last year.