By Janet Wilson, THE DESERT SUN
April 3, 2020
California regulators on Friday issued fracking permits for the first time in nine months, saying federal scientists had given clearance for 24 permits to Aera Energy for oil well stimulation in Kern County.
Another 282 applications remain on hold pending individual review, until a comprehensive audit of the state's drill permitting practices is completed.
"Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory experts are continuing evaluation on a permit-by-permit basis and conducting a rigorous technical review to verify geological claims made by well operators in the application process," said Teresa Schilling, spokeswoman for the California Geologic Energy Management division, or CalGEM. "Permit-by-permit review will continue until the Department of Finance Audit is complete later this year."
Last July, Gov. Gavin Newsom fired the state's oil and gas supervisor a day after The Desert Sun reported that the number of fracking permits issued during his first six months in office had doubled compared to the same period under his predecessor, and that senior managers were invested in oil companies they were charged with regulating. Newsom had been unaware of the increase.
In November, after reports by The Desert Sun about illegal oil spills across the state, and empty "dummy" project folders for risky cyclic steam permits issued without required upfront approvals, Newsom announced a moratorium on all new fracking and cyclic steam permits.
While environmentalists and consumer advocates were delighted with the halt, Newsom and other state officials faced immediate, fierce backlash from oil executives and employees, and from Kern County officials, where most of the state's petroleum production is located. Kern County is in the southern part of the Central Valley.
On Friday, new Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk notified Aera Energy that he had signed off on two dozen permits for fracking wells in its North and South Belridge oil field operations. He did so after Aera provided additional, detailed field descriptions and other technical data and guarantees requested by the Lawrence Livermore reviewers. The federal lab also evaluated CalGEM's engineering and geologic analyses.*
"We are pleased that after a comprehensive and detailed review process, Aera received its first well stimulation treatment permits since last June," said Aera spokeswoman Cindy Pollard in an email.
She added: "Following this very stringent and thorough review. ... We are certain that the people in California can have confidence that Aera, our industry and the state are all deeply committed to protecting public health, safety and the environment, while preserving the jobs of the tens of thousands of men and women whose families depend on the oil and gas industry every day."
But opponents were not happy that the state has resumed issuing permits for what they say is a risky drilling technique, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"With the entire state shut down and kids out of school, what purpose could approving these fracking permits have now, other than to do a solid for the oil industry when no one is watching? This is like a Pearl Harbor attack for the environment," said Jamie Court, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, which unearthed the data about conflicts of interest among senior oil regulators. "As if California has not had enough bad news, fracking is now back. ... What pebble-minded bureaucrat decided that as we hunker in our homes trying to avoid a plague that it was time to bring fracking back?"
Others agreed the timing was poor.
“In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the last thing we need is more toxic fracking chemicals in the air we breathe," said Hollin Kretzmann, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The science is clear," he said. "Fracking pollutes our air with toxic emissions that make us sick, contaminates our groundwater, and pushes us faster toward catastrophic climate change. There's no reason to allow fracking in California or anywhere else."
He urged Newsom "to do everything possible to protect our lungs and the environment while responding to the crisis. We need a ban on fracking, not a resumption of permitting."
Pollard, the Aera spokeswoman, had a different viewpoint on the timing. "These permits come at an especially critical time as the nation is dealing with a public health crisis unlike anything before," she said. "As part of California’s essential infrastructure, Aera takes very seriously our responsibility to continue to produce the energy that allows essential personnel to get to work every day, businesses to reinvent themselves during these challenging times, and California-grown produce to arrive at dinner tables throughout the state."
In a statement on behalf of the Newsom administration, Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot reiterated that “the well stimulation permits issued today are the result of a rigorous third-party scientific review performed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory."
He said the review was one part of initiatives announced last fall to strengthen oil and gas oversight and protect public health, safety and the environment. Agency officials are also considering rule-making that would require a buffer between oil operations and schools, playgrounds and residential areas. Public comment sessions were suspended due to social distancing restrictions during the coronavirus outbreak.
"We remain committed to these values during this time of crisis, and will continue to implement the initiatives ... while working with stakeholders to secure strong public health and environmental regulations."
More information on the federal review and the permits issued can be found at https://conservation.ca.gov/calgem/Pages/Well-Stim-National-Lab-Scientific-Review.aspx
Correction: Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk's name was spelled incorrectly in the original version of this story.
Janet Wilson is a senior environment reporter with The Desert Sun and part of the 2020 ProPublica State Reporting Network. She can be reached at [email protected] or @janetwilson66