By Janet Wilson, THE PALM SPRINGS DESERT SUN
April 23, 2021
California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday directed the state's top oil regulator, the Geologic Energy Management Division, to immediately begin crafting a regulation to halt new hydraulic fracturing permits by 2024.
Newsom also asked the California Air Resources Board to study ways to phase out all oil extraction across the state by no later than 2045.
“The climate crisis is real, and we continue to see the signs every day,” Newsom said in a written news release. “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.”
Newsom acted after ambitious legislation — which would have gone much further — died in the state Senate last week. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, while a hot button issue nationally, accounts for between 2% and 20% of California's oil extraction. Just a dozen new fracking permits have been issued statewide this year.
Senate Bill 467 would have also banned dangerous and far more common cyclic steaming techniques — a Desert Sun/ProPublica investigation found these techniques have caused large oil spills off which companies have profited — and imposed a mandatory 2,500-foot buffer between oil and gas operations.
Newsom opted for a far more cautious route, aiming to cut a middle path between increasingly angry environmentalists and social justice advocates on one side, and powerful trade unions and politically connected oil lobbyists on the other.
CalGEM is also expected to announce a "public health" draft regulation sometime this spring that could include a buffer zone and other measures, after delaying it late last year. Drafting regulations could bullet-proof the state against lawsuits, but the process could stretch out for years.
The governor's announcement did little to appease critics on either side. A top Newsom administration official said last fall that it was up to the legislature to ban fracking, and Newsom said he wanted to work with them to do it. But environmentalists and some independent legal experts say he has the authority to issue an executive order to halt drilling, especially near residential areas, at once.
Technically, Friday's actions build on Newsom's executive order from last September, which called for an end to fracking and to accelerate California’s transition away from gasoline-powered cars. Environmental justice advocates say it's far too slow, and people will be harmed for years longer due the incremental stepstaken by the administration.
“The governor can and should use the power entrusted to him by immediately issuing a moratorium on drilling next to our homes, schools and hospitals to protect families from unconscionable health and safety burdens that endanger our families,” said Gladys Limón, executive director for the California Environmental Justice Alliance.
“We welcome this historic announcement ... yet we are acutely aware of the slow and often exclusionary nature of regulatory processes," said Martha Dina Agruello, Executive Director for the Physicians for Social Responsibility - Los Angeles. "Communities need immediate relief to the heath assaults of oil and gas extraction in the form of an immediate 2,500-foot health and safety buffer. Justice delayed is justice denied.”
The state's leasing oil lobbyists also lambasted the announcement, vowing to sue and take other steps if necessary.
“Once again, Gov. Newsom has chosen to ignore science, data and facts to govern by bans, mandates and personal fiat," said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of Western States Petroleum Association. "Banning nearly 20% of the energy production in our state will only hurt workers, families and communities in California and turn our energy independence over to foreign suppliers.
“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. We will be a key part of an equitable energy future for California.”
California Independent Petroleum Association CEO Rock Zierman said the governor’s announcement was "disappointing."
Zierman added: "Curbing in-state production through a well stimulation ban would not change the fact that Californians demand 1.4 million barrels of oil each day. Instead of meeting our vast needs with California oil produced under the planet’s strictest regulations, we would economically reward foreign regimes who do not share our environmental standards and human rights values."
In a statement, the co-authors of SB 467 praised the latest action but said more needs to be done, and faster.
“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," said Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, and Sen. Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara. "To date, political paralysis has prevented that conversation from happening. We hope the governor’s action today breaks that political logjam. Legislative action likely will still be needed, and we’re ready to move that legislation."
The two lawmakers will again likely push for 2,500-foot buffer zones around "homes, schools, and other sensitive uses."
“Fracking and other extreme oil extraction practices — particularly cyclic steam and steam and water flooding — are harming our communities and undermining meaningful climate action," they continued. "These are the dominant forms of extraction in California. Our frontline communities are paying the price every day for our addiction to oil. It’s time for California to lead decisively in the movement for 100% clean energy. Today’s move is a solid step in that direction.”
Stanford environmental law professor Deborah Sivas said last fall that the governor and state oil regulators have "pretty sweeping power to oversee new wells" under existing state public resource codes. As she reads it, that authority was expanded a few years ago with regard to fracking.
Sivas said then that while she understood Newsom might be hoping to avoid a lawsuit, litigation was likely inevitable, so he could save time by acting right away. Instead, he opted to let the legislature try, but SB 467 went further than what he'd asked them to do.
Under Newsom’s direction, the state air board will evaluate how to phase out oil extraction by 2045 through the Climate Change Scoping Plan, the state’s multi-year plan to achieve mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Inclusion in the scoping plan "means that phasing out oil extraction becomes a part of California’s blueprint to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2045," the governor's statement read.
The state air board would evaluate economic, environmental and health benefits and impacts of eliminating oil extraction as part of its potentially lengthy public input and scrutiny.
State officials said their current process for reviewing permits for fracking is already the most stringent in the country; all applications are reviewed by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who must sign off before they can be issued.
Newsom's announcement comes atop earlier measures that, combined with the pandemic-caused slowdown in oil production and use, have already pushed California permit approvals and hydraulic fracturing activity to their lowest levels since 2014, when the legislature strengthened regulation of hydraulic fracturing.
Overall, permits for all types of drilling and extraction plunged 90% in the first quarter of 2021 to just 100 total approved, according to CalGEM data compiled by the environmental group FracTracker Alliance.
Still, advocates said it was time for swift government action.
“Rather than relying on the markets to dictate a managed decline, Gov. Newsom's administration needs to be the leader in creating those policies,” said Kyle Ferrar, western program coordinator for FracTracker Alliance.
"This is the ideal moment for Gov. Newsom ... to lead California away from fossil fuels in an intentional transition that protects frontline communities as well as jobs for oil and gas workers in cleaning up a toxic mess the industry has left behind,” said Liza Tucker of consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.
Two University of California-led studies commissioned by the California Environmental Protection Agency were released earlier this week that identified strategies to support the state’s goal to dramatically reduce transportation-related fossil fuel demand over the next quarter of the century. The studies analyzed the health and safety impacts associated with pollution originating from the extraction and processing of oil and will inform CARB’s scoping plan.
Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun/USA Today network. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @janetwilson66