EXPLAINER: California proposes limits on community drilling

Consumer

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks near oil fields by the Wilmington Boys & Girls Club Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Wilmington, Calif. California’s oil and gas regulator 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 (Hunter Lee/The Orange County Register via AP)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — An ambitious plan by California regulators to block new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet (975 meters) of schools and homes is drawing protests from the oil industry and plaudits from environmentalists, who still want the state to go further.

But the plan released Thursday is just a first step, and things are far from settled. Here’s a look at what’s in the proposal, how it came about and what’s next:

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN UNDER THE PLAN?

It adopted as written, the state would stop allowing new oil and gas wells to be drilled within 3,200 feet of K-12 schools and daycares, homes and dorms, health care centers such as hospitals or nursing homes, and public-facing businesses.

It wouldn’t stop existing drilling within those zones but would create more than a dozen new pollution control measures designed to limit the negative health effects for people who live nearby.

WHY WAS IT PROPOSED?

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has made bold pronouncements about his desire to wean the state from oil and gas production and use, declaring that oil won’t be part of the state’s future. When he took office in 2019, he told the state’s oil and gas regulator to make health and safety part of its mission. This proposal flows from that.

It would create the largest buffer zone around oil drilling and community sites in the nation if adopted, something the governor and his administration have touted repeatedly.

A 15-member panel of experts, including scientists and public health leaders, concluded that living within 3,200 feet, or about 1 kilometer, of oil and gas drilling increased the risks for respiratory problems or birth complications, based on studies conducted in California and other oil-producing states like Texas and Pennsylvania

Some people who live near drilling sites say they experience nosebleeds, headaches, respiratory issues and other problems.

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO EXISTING WELLS?

Wells that fall within the 3,200-foot zone wouldn’t have to close down. But they would have to meet new pollution controls. Administration officials say they hope those rules will prompt some well owners to shut them down.

One of those controls is a leak detection and response plan that would require operators to detect for chemicals such as methane or hydrogen sulfide with an alarm system. Operators would have to suspend use of the well or production facility until a leak is corrected and the state’s oil regulator gives the OK to resume. They must notify the community if the leak isn’t stopped with 48 hours.

Other controls include preventing and recovering the release of vapors, keeping sound and lighting low between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m., and conducting water sampling.

WHEN DOES IT TAKE EFFECT?

Not for a while — and it could change. The proposal released Thursday will now go through a 60-day public comment period, followed by an economic analysis and another year of bureaucratic wrangling. The final rule won’t take effect until at least 2023, and oil drillers would have a year or two to comply with the strictest parts.

WHERE IS THIS HAPPENING?

There are more than 18,000 active oil and gas wells in California within 3,200 feet of community sites, mostly in Los Angeles County and the Central Valley, particularly in oil-rich Kern County.

Low-income Californians and communities of color are the most likely to live in neighborhoods with oil drilling. In some places, people live right next door or across the street from drilling operations, exposing them to loud sounds, foul smells and, sometimes, emissions.

Oil development began in Los Angeles as early as the 1890s, said Bhavna Shamasunder, a professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College who focuses on environmental justice research. City planners allowed oil development to occur alongside residential and commercial buildings, with little to no environmental considerations, she said. Wealthier communities often had more power to fight development.

WHAT DO ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS SAY?

Environmental groups are pleased with the proposed rules, but they plan to push the Newsom administration to go even further. They want to the state to block any new permits to do work at existing wells in the buffer zone except to plug and abandon them. Under the administration’s proposal, a well could get a permit to re-drill or go deeper.

They are also concerned about the eventual enforcement of the rule. The Geologic Energy Management Division, the state oversight body, has often faced pushback from critics who say it doesn’t do enough to regulate the oil industry.

Dan Ress, staff attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said the proposal needs to be clearer about what happens to oil companies that break the rules for new pollution controls.

“There’s just a lot of these issues with enforcement that don’t make us comfortable trusting CalGEM,” Ress said.

WHAT ABOUT THE OIL COMPANIES?

The oil industry and its allies in organized labor, particularly the State Building and Construction Trades Council, are against the proposal. They warn it will reduce California’s access to reliable energy and raise prices. But they aren’t being specific on what changes they will push.

Kevin Slagle, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said the oil industry lobbying arm would work toward regulations that consider “the unique needs of each community and region.” In other words, the group does not want a statewide rule. He said it was too early to know whether the petroleum association would file legal challenges.

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