As the nation's most populous state with nearly 40 million residents, California does use a lot of oil. But the state has taken steps to curb its demand. Last year, state regulators approved new rules to force automakers to sell more electric work trucks and delivery vans. And in September, Newsom ordered regulators to ban the sale of all new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035.
Fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing, the process of extracting oil and gas embedded in rock deep underground — accounts for a small portion of the state’s oil and gas production each year. But environmental advocates have long sought its banishment because of its harmful effects on the environment and public health.
Last year, Newsom said he did not have the authority to ban fracking on his own and asked the Legislature to do it instead. Two state senators, both Democrats, tried to do it. But last week their bill died in the Legislature because not enough lawmakers supported it.
Now, Newsom says he can do it himself, but it's unclear what changed his mind. California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said Friday that Newsom believes the best way to ban fracking is to change the law. But, when it became clear that wouldn't happen, Crowfoot said Newsom “directed us through our regulatory authorities to protect the environment and public safety to end the practice of fracking.”
Newsom did temporarily halt new fracking permits in 2019 after he discovered a sharp increase in new permits since he took office, which also prompted him to fire the state's top oil and gas regulator. That ban lifted in April 2020 after a team of independent scientists reviewed the state's permitting process.
Since taking office, the Newsom administration has issued 291 fracking permits, according to an analysis of state data by FracTracker Alliance, an environmental advocacy group. That group said in the first three months of this year, permit approvals for all types of oil and gas production wells in California have plunged 90%.
Still, environmental groups were hoping Newsom would act faster.
“It's historic and globally significant that Gov. Newsom has committed California to phase out fossil fuel production and ban fracking, but we don't have time for studies and delays,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, in a statement. “Every fracking and drilling permit issued does more damage to our health and climate.”
A statement from Alexandra Nagy, California director of Food and Water Watch, echoed that sentiment.
“While it is significant that for the first time Gov. Newsom is acknowledging the need to ban fracking and his authority to do it, this announcement is a half measure as it allows continued drilling and fracking for the next two-and-a-half years. It comes after years of pressure and dedicated organizing by thousands of Californians who want a just transition away from fracking now."
The Newsom administration said the state's rule-making process, while lengthy, is needed to make sure any new rule survives a lawsuit.
“We want this prohibition to be durable,” Crowfoot said.
The California League of Conservation Voters praised Newsom, saying the announcement “is the consistent leadership our state needs if we stand a chance of preventing major climate catastrophe.”
But some in Newsom's own party were critical, including state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat from the Central Valley, who said the fracking ban would lead to higher energy prices that would in turn increase food prices.
“The governor's actions could not come at a worse time for the Central Valley, which is already reeling from a drought that — together with this decision — may cause a national food crisis,” she said.