By Rachel Becker, CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom today acknowledged the health dangers of fossil fuel development in California as state regulators took a first step towards preventing the development of new oil and gas wells near schools, hospitals, and homes.
The proposal, released today by the Department of Conservation’s Geologic Energy Management Division, is still a draft — and may yet change as it winds its way through a regulatory process that includes extensive public comment.
“This is about morality. The issue that really unites us here today is around the issue of justice, environmental justice, economic justice — they go hand in hand,” Newsom said in Wilmington, a community surrounded by oil refineries. “It’s about public health. It’s about safety. It’s about dignity. It’s about the ability to live your life out loud.”
The governor, who in April ordered the phase-out of new oil fracking, has been criticized by environmental advocates for not doing more to reduce fossil fuel pollution and production that disproportionately burdens low-income communities and communities of color. California lawmakers and officials are expected to attend a crucial international conference on climate change early next month.
Newsom directed California’s oil and gas regulators to ramp up public protections near oil and gas facilities in 2019. The controversial proposal has already received more than 40,000 individual public comments, state officials say. And it comes after a lengthy review by a panel of public health experts.
Still, it’s likely to see significant opposition from the politically powerful oil and gas industry and state building trades lobby, which have successfully blocked legislative attempts to establish health and safety buffer zones around oil and gas facilities.
Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president and CEO of the Western States Petroleum Association, called it “an activist assault on California’s way of life, economy and people” and said it “could lead to increased costs and reduce the reliability of our energy supply. His decision was not based on what is best for Californians or science.”
Environmental justice advocates, however, said it was “a strong step in the right direction” that nevertheless does not go far enough to rein in an industry that has historically seen limited enforcement.
“This draft rule misses the chance to prohibit new permits for existing wells, a key element for our communities,” Juan Flores, community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the administration to close this loophole and quickly move to protect our communities at long last.”
The draft rule proposes a 3,200-foot public health setback around new oil and gas development, separating new wells from sensitive sites such as homes, hospitals, schools and nursing homes. Nearly 2 million Californians live within 3,200 feet of an existing oil and gas facility, according to Jared Blumenfeld, California’s Environmental Protection Secretary.
Operators of existing oil and gas wells would be required to install emissions detection and vapor capture systems at the wellheads and establish nearby monitoring for pollutants. The rule would bar diesel engines on site, and require reducing other nuisances such as dust and nighttime lighting.
Six years ago, California scientists released a comprehensive review of fracking and other practices in California, warning “many of the constituents used in and emitted by oil and gas development can damage health, and place disproportionate risks on sensitive populations, including children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.”
The report recommended that California “develop policies such as science-based surface setbacks, to limit exposures.”
“We are working to ensure that the harmful emissions that are of concern are eliminated through installing the strongest, and I can say this unequivocally, the strongest set of engineering controls and mitigation measures in the country,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s Natural Resources Secretary.
California, which cultivates an image of aggressive action to limit climate change, is the seventh largest producer of crude oil in the country.
New oil and gas development is declining in California, state officials said. “The number of permits for abandonment outpaces the number of permits for new wells,” Crowfoot said.
But while new development has flatlined, companies continue to rework existing wells. Southern California has some of the most extensive urban oil fields in the nation, dating back to the 19th century in some cases. Cleverly camouflaged pump jacks are located near the Beverly Hills High School campus, as well as in residential areas of Long Beach and along Kern County roads and fields.
A 15-member panel of public health experts, co-chaired by Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of environmental science at the University of California Berkeley, catalogued a number of health threats from oil and gas development. These include asthma and adverse birth outcomes, such as low birth weight — which can put newborns at increased risk of death or long-term developmental problems.
The scientists evaluated a number of potential control strategies, and determined that eliminating or reducing new wells and properly shutting down existing ones would eliminate “the source of nearly all environmental stressors … protects local and regional populations.”
As for disadvantages to doing so, the researchers wrote only one word: “None.”
The research team was more skeptical of the pollution controls for existing wells, which they said “tend to be disproportionately focused on air pollutant emissions” and “(lack) the important factor of safety provided by a setback when engineering controls fail.”
Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance who was behind the failed two-year effort to establish setbacks around sensitive sites such as schools, called this a “historic announcement” but said “we need to ensure that we are protecting all neighborhoods, regardless whether the wells are new or existing.”
CalMatters reporter Julie Cart contributed to this story.
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