Newsom Freezes New Fracking Permits in California, Courthouse News Service

Citing the need for enhanced studies on the environmental impacts caused by two popular oil and gas drilling techniques, California officials announced Tuesday the state is suspending new permits for fracking and high-pressure steam operations.

Nick Cahill • November 19, 2019

Oil flows at a Chevron oil field in Kern County, Calif., on May 10, 2019. Nearly 800,000 gallons of oil and water seeped from the ground over the next two months. Chevron and California officials say the spill is not near any waterway and has not significantly affected wildlife. (Source: California Deptartment (sic) of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response via AP)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Citing the need for enhanced studies on the environmental impacts caused by two popular oil and gas drilling techniques, California officials announced Tuesday the state is suspending new permits for fracking and high-pressure steam operations.

After environmentalists unsuccessfully implored former Governor Jerry Brown over the last eight years to halt the budding oil extraction methods, Governor Gavin Newsom in his first year in office has answered their calls. His order requires pending fracking applications to be reviewed by independent experts as well as a wholesale review of public health and safety laws regarding the proximity of oil wells near homes, schools and hospitals.

“These are necessary steps to strengthen oversight of oil and gas extraction as we phase out our dependence on fossil fuels and focus on clean energy sources,” said Newsom in a statement. “This transition cannot happen overnight; it must advance in a deliberate way to protect people, our environment, and our economy.”

Following a major oil spill in Kern County in July, Newsom ordered a shakeup of the state agency tasked with regulating California’s massive petroleum industry and fired its head for issuing what he deemed an excessive number of new fracking permits. Newsom has long been a vocal opponent of the practice and vowed on the campaign trail to increase industry oversight.

Last month, the state’s oil and gas regulator fined Chevron $2.7 million for oil leaks at Cymric Oil Field in Kern County. The fine is the second-largest issued by the regulator behind a $5 million fine given to HVI Cat Canyon Inc. last January for violations at an Orange County oil field.

The order places a moratorium on new operations that use high-pressure steam to break into underground oil formations until further study is done but does not apply to low-pressure steam techniques. The technique has been linked to a series of major oil spills earlier this year that state regulators are still investigating.

It also calls for an audit into the permit process for new oil wells and until the review is complete, experts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will decide pending and new applications. Lastly, Newsom wants regulators to convene with environmental groups and public health advocates to reshape rules to meant to protect communities from nearby oil drilling operations.

State Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove, who represents Kern County and the area of the recent oil spills, called Newsom’s order an “attack on the oil industry.” She says the move could force producers and investors out of Kern County and require the state to rely on imported oil.

“California’s thirst for oil will not reduce a single barrel by this policy, but as a result we will import more foreign oil and export California’s cash,” Grove said in a statement. “We are a world leader in environmental policy and regulate the oil industry like no other state or country. Those strict regulations are in place to ensure the safety of all operations and that environmental responsibility is held to the highest standard.”

But Sierra Club California said Newsom’s three-pronged order is more than “any governor has done in a single day to rein in oil pollution.”

“Governor Newsom said he wasn’t intimidated by the oil industry when he ran for office. He promised he would find a way to protect California’s environment and public health from that harmful industry. Today he took a huge step toward making good on that promise,” said director Kathryn Phillips in a statement.

Tuesday’s order comes on the heels of an October announcement by the Trump administration that it will soon auction over 700,000 acres of federal land in California to the fossil fuel industry – a move critics view as another example of the White House trampling environmental policies enacted by state and local governments. Portions of land to be auctioned cover stretches of Monterey, San Benito, Alameda and Santa Cruz counties, where voters and county supervisors have passed ordinances banning fracking and new oil wells.

The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity have accused the Trump administration of ignoring science and are suing in federal court to stop the planned auctions.

High-pressure steam and hydraulic fracking methods have become increasingly common in California as oil companies continue to pull heavy crude from land in oil-rich counties like Kern and Monterey. In 2017, the oil industry generated over $152 billion in economic output and more than 366,000 jobs in California, according to a recent Los Angeles County report.

Under the high-pressure steam or cyclic steam stimulation method, water is heated to 600 degrees and funneled through injection wells where it warms up the underground oil, decreases its viscosity and finally herds the precious fuel toward a production well.

The Center for Biological Diversity called Tuesday’s announcement a “turning point” in environmentalists’ fight for a sweeping ban of fracking in the Golden State.

“The thing that we’re most excited about is the moratorium on these high-pressure steam injections that crack rocks. It’s a very dangerous technique and something that’s been linked to oil spills, and it’s high time it was stopped,” said Patrick Sullivan, center communications director, in a phone interview.

While the state hasn’t issued a new permit for fracking since July, it has granted 8% more permits than it did during the same period last year, according to public interest groups tracking California’s oil permits. Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance said Tuesday’s moratorium was “promising” but that it will continue to press Newsom for a fracking ban and setback rules that will keep oil and gas wells away from homes and children.

“The ultimate test of his tenure for climate change and the public will be simple math about how many fewer permits are issued and how many existing wells are closed. Net zero wells should be his goal,” said Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court in a statement.