By Debra Kahn, Politico California Pro Newsletter

January 19, 2021

PERMISSION SLIPS: California regulators approved more than twice as many permits to drill new oil and gas wells in 2020 as they did the previous year, although most other types of petroleum permits fell, according to new figures compiled by activists, POLITICO's Debra Kahn reports.

The Geologic Energy Management Division approved just over 1,700 new drilling permits, up from about 800 in 2019, according to Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance. But only about 60 new wells were actually drilled, reflecting the pandemic's continued pressure on demand and prices. The permits are good for up to two years. The state also saw a significant uptick in permits to plug abandoned wells, issuing about 3,400, up from about 2,670 in 2019.

Activists are still waiting on CalGEM to release draft rules setting minimum distances between oil and gas wells and communities, which were due by the end of 2020 but delayed until the spring. About 10 percent of the new permits are in areas that would be off-limits under the 2,500-foot setback that environmental groups are advocating for, according to the groups' analysis.

Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court speculated the rules might be delayed in order to stave off oil industry support for the campaign to recall Newsom, which has only netted one contribution from an oil company so far. "There's only two reasons a setback rule would be delayed: complete incompetence at CalGEM, or they're waiting out the recall to see if it's serious and not encourage oil company donations," he said.

Industry representatives pointed to the rise in tanker traffic created by the need to store excess oil during the pandemic. "If these activists truly cared about the environment then they would worry more about the foreign tankers that idled in California’s Los Angeles and San Francisco ports spewing pollution into the air for months earlier this year," Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, said in a statement. "Stopping oil locally produced in California under the strictest regulations on the planet will only make the state more dependent on foreign oil that is produced without our environmental protections and humanitarian values."