For the first time since last summer, California oil and gas regulators have approved permits for a controversial drilling practice called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Last Friday the California Geologic Energy Management Division, CalGEM, issued two dozen new permits for fracking wells. The well stimulation permits went to a company called Aera Energy in Kern County.
Environmentalists have long opposed the methods and say with COVID-19 the timing couldn’t be worse.
“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 for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Public health has never been more endangered.”
The decision to permit comes after the state-imposed new regulations on fracking and curbed steam injected oil drilling last year. CalGEM, which did not reply to request for comment, asked in November for a scientific, independent review of the permitting process. The goal is to make sure the state is meeting public health, environmental and safety protection standards.
That review was completed by the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory earlier this year. Late last week the state-issued 24 permits to Aera Energy in Kern County. Advocates say they expect more and the state still has 282 fracking permits that could be permitted, the Associated Press reports.
But advocates say the extra time spent by the laboratory does not mean the permits were held to any higher regulatory requirements.
“These permits took longer because the past process was inadequate, not because this most recent approval involved any enhanced review or increased protection,” said Colin O’Brien, staff attorney with the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice.
The report from the lab states it isn’t tasked with the “revision of CalGEM’s procedures or modification of CalGEM’s risk analysis modeling” and “we do not assess the CEQA documentation requirements of the application process.”
Environmental and health advocates across the state are calling for the governor to stop all new fracking permits.
“We hope Gov. Newsom intervenes to protect public health in this state,” said Caroline Farrell, Executive Director of the Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment, or CRPE, based out of Delano.
With the oil industry grappling with the sharp drop in demand for fuel because of the stay-at-home order, Aera says the timing of the permits is important.
“These permits actually come at a pretty critical time for the nation,” said Aera spokesperson Cindy Pollard. “As part of California's essential infrastructure, we take very seriously our responsibility to continue to produce the energy that the state needs.”
The permits allow Aera to complete work on wells drilled last year.
“It's going to allow us to get back to producing oil and giving the public the confidence that we're doing so safely and responsibly,” said Pollard. “Now that the review has taken place, we're optimistic that the flow will continue. But right now we as an industry are facing a very low price environment.”
The company is dealing with the change in the price of oil. As a result she says the company is “pivoting away from activities that are not economic and we are looking to ramp back up to our full scale of production just as soon as it becomes economic to do so.”
But health and environmental advocates are crying foul and say increasing fracking will only make air quality worse.
They say additional pollution could increase the risk of contracting COVID-19, especially in a county where the cases of adult asthma and lung cancer are high. According to the American Lung Association, Bakersfield — a community close to the oil field where fracking is set to happen — is ranked in the top three U.S. metropolitan areas for ozone and particle pollution.
“We already breathe some of the dirtiest air in the nation," Farrell with CRPE said. "New fracking and oil drilling will pump pollution into our air that will hurt Californians’ lungs and hearts just as we’re dealing with COVID-19.”
Pollard, with Aera, agrees that the San Joaquin Valley has poor air quality, but says “that cannot be laid at the foot of the oil industry” when there are other polluting sources like cars.
The thought of new oil wells operating in Kern County worries some residents, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases rises. As of last week there were 41 new cases in Bakersfield.
“We live in one of the most polluted areas in regions of California … and we suffer from a peculiar illness, which is valley fever, that a lot of our farmworkers and oil workers suffer from,” said Juan Flores, a community organizer in Kern County with CRPE.
“To allow for these permits and to use search and extraction methods that pollute the air and water put a heavier burden on our communities,” added Flores.
A new Harvard study published April 5 found that a small increase in long-term exposure to particulate pollution leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate. The authors say the results “underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations during the COVID-19 crisis.” They note a failure to do so would “potentially increase the COVID-19 death toll and hospitalizations, further burdening our healthcare system and drawing resources away from COVID-19 patients.”
The regulations put into place last year also created a moratorium, which is still in place, prohibiting new underground oil-extraction wells from using a procedure that uses high-pressure steam.
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