California Proposes New Ban on Oil Drilling Near Neighborhoods

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An oil drill stands still on the left; across the street to the right are homes.
An oil pumping jack stands idle during the coronavirus pandemic on April 20, 2020, in Signal Hill, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday proposed that the state ban new oil drilling within 3,200 feet of schools, homes and hospitals to protect public health in what would be the nation's largest buffer zone between oil wells and communities.

It's the latest effort by Newsom's administration to wind down oil production in California, aligning him with environmental advocates pushing to curb the effects of climate change and against the powerful oil industry in the nation's seventh-largest oil-producing state.

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And that effort is especially necessary to protect vulnerable communities, said Darryl Molina Sarmiento, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment, in a Thursday press conference.

"We are tired of being treated like sacrifice zones with dangerous health impacts of living next to oil production, including higher rates of asthma and respiratory illness, low birth weights and adverse birth outcomes, heart disease, and more," he said.

Studies show living near a drilling site can elevate risks of birth defects, cancer, respiratory problems and other health issues. Two million Californians live within 3,200 feet of oil-drilling sites, primarily in Los Angeles County and the Central Valley. The proposal would not ban wells already operating in that zone but would add new pollution controls.

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“Extracting oil is a dirty business and it's had a real impact on Californians," said Jared Blumenfeld, California’s secretary for environmental protection. “Often we frame it as it's about air pollution, it's about climate change. This is really about helping communities and community health near these facilities."

Newsom's administration released a draft of the new rules Thursday morning, though they could be changed over a 60-day comment period. After then, the state's energy regulator will submit the proposed rule to the Office of Administrative Law to receive additional comments and refine the rule.

This would be the first time California has set statewide rules on how close drilling can be to homes, schools and other sites. Other oil- and gas-producing states such as Colorado, Pennsylvania and even Texas have rules about how close oil wells can be to certain properties. Colorado’s 2,000-foot setback on new drilling, adopted last year, is the nation’s strictest rule right now.

California's plan for a 3,200-foot buffer, if adopted, would also go further than the 2,500-foot buffer environmental groups sought.

“State regulators listened to the scientists, they didn’t shy away from proposing the largest setback requirement in the nation when it became clear that was needed to protect public health,” said Ann Alexander, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It comes in the wake of a massive oil spill that coated Southern California beaches earlier this month when an underwater pipeline burst just off Huntington Beach. Federal investigators are examining whether a container ship snagged the pipeline earlier this year and dragged it on the seabed. The spill has prompted calls for the federal government to ban offshore drilling.

Newsom, who just survived a recall election, has directed state air regulators to come up with a plan to end oil and gas production in the state by 2045 and curb demand by banning the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. But he has faced criticism from environmental groups for not moving more aggressively to protect residents with lower incomes and communities of color from the effects of climate change.

At the Thursday press conference, advocates said Newsom's effort to curb drilling would be a measurable success. Dr. Carol Archie, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said her patients breathe in unhealthy air and suffer ill effects because of it.

"I want to thank the governor for tackling this issue because it is what will save lives — moms, babies," she said. "I want my mothers to live well and live long enough to be grandmothers and great-grandmothers."

The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil and gas interest group, blasted the proposed rules as an “activist assault on California’s way of life, economy and people” in a statement from President Catherine Reheis-Boyd.

Reheis-Boyd said the industry doesn't oppose local setbacks but does not approve of a statewide rule. The association was aligned with the influential State Building and Construction Trade Council, a labor union, in opposing statewide rules.

She said the rules would lead to less reliable energy and higher prices in an industry that employs about 150,000 people.

But the cost of that drilling is too high, said Dr. Cedric "Jamie" Rutland, a pulmonary and critical care physician from the American Lung Association, and communities often bear the brunt of the environmental fallout, which can lead to asthma and hospitalizations.

"These patients ... I take care of on a daily basis. In my practice, I can see the fear in families trying to make sure that their child can take that deep breath," Rutland said.

The California Geologic Energy Management Division, known as CalGEM, regulates the state’s oil industry and issues permits for new drilling. Newsom changed the agency’s name and directed it to focus more on health and safety when he took office in 2019, specifically telling the division to consider setbacks around oil drilling to protect community health. The rules released Thursday are the result of that process.

Once the rules are finalized, it will be at least another year before they take effect, likely in 2023, said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.

CalGEM has long faced criticism that it’s too cozy with the industry it regulates. Crowfoot acknowledged that the regulator needs to better enforce oil companies’ compliance with state law.

Wells within 3,200 feet of community sites account for about a third of the state’s oil extraction, Crowfoot said. There are about 32,400 wells in that zone, said Erin Mellon, a Newsom spokesperson. Community sites include homes and apartments, preschools and K-12 schools, day cares, businesses and health care facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes.

Wells within the 3,200-foot zone would not be shut down but would be required to meet a host of new safety requirements, including comprehensive leak detection and response plans, technology that allows for vapor recovery, water sampling and a reduction of nighttime lighting and dust. Those rules are designed to limit health effects such as asthma and pregnancy complications, and cut nuisances like noise pollution.

It would be legally difficult for the state to shut down those wells, but administration officials said they hope the new rules will be burdensome enough to prompt some drillers to close them. Well operators would be financially responsible for meeting the requirements and have one to two years to do so, state officials said.

Blumenfeld said the rules are intended to send a strong signal to existing drillers that “they’re going to have to invest a significant amount of time, money and attention in order to get into compliance."

The state received more than 40,000 public comments on the draft rules and convened a 15-member panel of public health experts to research the effects of neighborhood oil drilling on health and safety. State officials said they plan to release findings from the health panel Thursday but will not release the full report until the final plan is ready.

At Thursday's press conference, after all the advocates spoke and the complexities and hurdles of the plan were laid out, Newsom boiled down California's energy future into one idea.

"We don't see oil in our future. We don't," Newsom said.

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KQED's Marisa Lagos and Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez and The Associated Press's Kathleen Ronayne contributed to this report.