SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In his first year in office, Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to protect Californians against hazards and pollutants from oil and gas production. Now the governor is facing increasing pressure to make good on his promise after efforts in the Legislature to mandate health and safety buffer zones around oil and gas wells and refineries failed amid fierce opposition from the petroleum industry and trade unions.
Legislation to put in place minimum setback distances between the wells and residential areas, along with public places such as schools and playgrounds, failed passage in a state Senate committee last week. The proposal faced a rough go from the outset, with resistance coming from Republicans and some pro-labor and Central Valley Democrats, underscoring the continued political muscle of California's billion-dollar oil industry -- even in a deep blue state known for enacting aggressive environmental protections.
In November, Newsom administration officials said the Department of Conservation would "consider the best available science and data" to determine if health and safety buffers were warranted around wells, stopping short of the mandate for setbacks included in the ill-fated legislation, Assembly Bill 345.
"The ball is in Gov. Newsom's court to protect Californians from oil industry pollution," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Promises have been made to Californians many times -- by the Legislature, by successive governors, that policy decisions will be based on science. The only answer based on the science is that oil wells do not belong in neighborhoods."
A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, published by the National Institutes of Health, found that living near oil and gas wells caused significant adverse health effects to pregnant mothers and newborn babies.
A 2014 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council determined that more than 5.4 million Californians lived within one mile of at least one oil or gas well.
Siegel and other environmental advocates also criticized Newsom for allowing the California Geologic Energy Management Division, known as CalGEM, to issue close to 50 new hydraulic fracturing permits to Chevron and Aera Energy, a partnership of Shell Oil and ExxonMobil, since April.
The permits were issued after a November announcement by Newsom that he would temporarily block new hydraulic fracturing permits until those projects could be reviewed by an independent panel of scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
"The independent scientific review is one of Gov. Newsom's initiatives to ensure oil and gas regulations protect public health, safety and environmental protection. This review, which assesses the completeness of each proposed hydraulic fracturing permit, is taking place as an interim measure while a broader audit is completed of CalGEM's permitting process for well stimulation," state Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk said in a statement.
Ntuk said six permits had been denied and 248 permits were still pending review by the panel.