The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, on Friday announced it has denied all 21 of Aera Energy’s applications for fracking operations in California, citing risks to public health and safety and environmental quality and climate change under regulatory statutes.
“This is the first permit denial of this scale for reasons related to public health and climate,” according to a statement from the Food and Water Watch.
Yet the same agency on June 21 missed yet another deadline to draft public health regulations to protect people living near oil and gas wells. Unlike in other states like North Dakota, Colorado, Texas and Pennsylvania that have at least minimal health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells, California has zero setbacks.
To put the announcement in context, fracking is responsible for only about 2% of total in-state oil production, according to CalGEM.
In May, Governor Newsom directed CalGEM to come up with a plan to ban new fracking (well stimulation) permits by 2024. Despite increasing pressure from environmental justice, environmental, climate and consumer groups to accelerate the process as California suffers from a record drought and hot weather, the Governor has to date maintained the three-year timeline.
In a statement, Newsom spokesperson Erin Mellon noted that Newsom “does not see a role for fracking” in California’s future:
The Governor has been clear that we need to do more to combat the climate crisis and create a healthier future. He has also been clear that he does not see a role for fracking in that future. In April, the Governor directed CALGEM to prepare regulations to ban new fracking permits by 2024. And the need to change is only more urgent as California is now experiencing accelerated impacts of climate change from drought to extreme heat events to larger and more intense wild fires.
The Governor applauds today’s action by the State Oil and Gas Supervisor to use his discretion under statue to deny 21 pending fracking permits, which will protect public health and safety and environmental quality and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. This is one of many actions the Administration is taking to reduce and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and respond to the climate emergency.”
Food & Water Watch’s California Director Alexandra Nagy praised CalGEM for denying the Aera permit applications, but noted that the Governor should advise the agency to deny all new oil and gas permits immediately.
“CalGEM is following the science and adhering to its regulatory purpose in denying these fracking permits, but Governor Newsom needs to follow through and instruct his agency to deny all new oil and gas permits immediately,” stated Nagy. “Frontline communities have just been spared the public health hazards and devastating environmental impact that would have come with the 21 fracking wells under consideration.”
“Unfortunately, CalGEM continues to permit all other oil and gas wells that further harm public health, water and climate. Governor Newsom must instruct CalGEM to come into alignment with their mission statement to protect life and health and deny all new permits now. Incremental steps are not enough to protect Californian communities and our climate, or save our scarce water resources from drilling operations that usurp them,” Nagy said.
Likewise, Consumer Watchdog said the denial by CalGEM of 21 Aera Energy fracking permits is a win for public health and the environment, although she would have preferred an immediate ban on all fracking.
“We applaud the Newsom Administration for finally using its discretion to deny Area destructive and dangerous fracking permits,” consumer advocate Liza Tucker said today. “This step is in concert with Governor Newsom’s goal of banning all fracking by 2024, though we believe that a ban across the board should be immediate.”
Tucker said CalGEM took the step under the rubric of SB 4, the state’s first law regulating fracking that passed in 2014. In 2021, CalGem has issued a dozen fracking permits through March 8, the agency said on its website.
In 2020, CalGEM issued 83 fracking permits after an independent review by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but also denied 57 permit applications. The company receiving the most fracking permits was Aera Energy, followed by Chevron.
In 2019, CalGEM issued approximately 220 fracking permits. “The number fell steadily after Newsom placed a temporary moratorium on fracking in 2019 after learning the number was skyrocketing on his watch,” said Tucker.
“Newsom had promised to ban fracking when he ran for office, but ultimately punted to the legislature to do that job. Lawmakers introduced legislation but Newsom never actively supported it and it died in its first committee. That bill would have also banned other dangerous forms of oil extraction and established a setback of 2,500 feet between new drilling and residents of communities living with oil drilling operations,” noted Tucker.
Tucker said fracking permit approvals and fracking itself are at their lowest level since SB 4 was enacted, citing reasons including the suppression of demand for oil during the pandemic and an economic reckoning on Wall Street where banks were looking at a lot of oil company debt coming due and questioning oil as a smart investment.
“Denying fracking permits is one step in phasing out oil and gas drilling in California,” Tucker said. “But this is only one step in a managed transition away from oil and gas. We are waiting for CalGEM to issue a long overdue rule setting a boundary of at least 2,500 feet between vulnerable communities and oil drilling operations. Governor Newsom must deliver on the requests he made of CalGEM to issue such a rule to protect the public health and the environment and hold his Oil & Gas Supervisor accountable for repeatedly blowing deadlines. In the meantime, he should put a moratorium on any new drilling permits until the setback is established.”
In a tweet, the Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment described the denial of 21 fracking permits in the Belridge Oil Field as “good but not enough. We need an immediate moratorium on all permits within 2500 feet of our homes, schools, hospitals, prisons and other sensitive receptors.”
”If CalGEM is denying fracking permits to protect the safety and health of Californians, we need to address the needs of frontline communities and no longer issue ANY permits within at least 2500 feet of sensitive receptors. We can’t pick and choose when to listen to science,” tweeted VISION, a coalition of environmental justice groups.
When Newsom announced the ban on fracking by 2024 on April 23, the oil and gas industry slammed the move.
“Once again, Governor Newsom has chosen to ignore science, data and facts to govern by bans, mandates and personal fiat,” according to a statement from Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President & CEO of the Western States Petroleum Association: “Banning nearly 20% of the energy production in our state will only hurt workers, families and communities in California and turns our energy independence over to foreign suppliers.”