Elected officials ask why California regulators under Newsom are approving new fracking permits

  • Published on July 16th, 2020

Elected Officials to Protect California (EOPCA ), a coalition of current and former elected officials opposed to fracking and increased oil and gas drilling in the state, is asking why California Governor Gavin Newsom is helping the failing fracking industry by overseeing an expansion of fracking operations during a global pandemic.

oil drilling in a California neighborhood

By Dan Bacher

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the coronavirus targeting the respiratory systems of over 200,000 in the state, the group said that Californian residents may soon be exposed to “compounding respiratory threats” from the result of more fracking operations.

“”During this unprecedented time when Californians are at their most vulnerable, big oil and gas companies have been lobbying Sacramento with greater intensity,” the coalition said in a statement. “Deviously, they have taken advantage of the pandemic to benefit from relaxed governmental regulations and pushed forward new fracking projects. This further endangers the health and wellbeing of thousands of Californians. Governor Gavin Newsom has walked back his promised goals of clean energy by handing out free passes, in the form of new fracking permits.”

According to the group, between April and June 1, 2020, California’s Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) issued 36 new fracking permits that ended a moratorium that Newson put in place in 2019.

Then on Thursday, July 2,  CalGEM issued 12 new fracking permits to Chevron in the Lost Hills oilfield of Kern County. That makes for a total of 48 new fracking permits since the fracking moratorium ended.

The group also noted that 256 additional fracking permits could be issued in earthquake prone California, the group stated.

The permits will allow Chevron to frack these wells 168 times, according to Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Kretzmann explained that each project proposal has a CEQA Project Description. For each Chevron well, the permit allows multiple “stages” or fracks per well. Kretzmann added up the number of stages to get 168.

“The oil and gas industry feared the drop in the prices of their products – worsened by the pandemic,” said San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon, Elected Officials to Protect California steering committee member. “They’ve been busy trying to ensure our dependency on fossil fuels by taking advantage of this life-threatening virus. They’ve been successful getting the federal government to roll back environmental protections and lifting restrictions to allow for more drilling. They’re gambling with our lives. We shouldn’t needlessly be putting more people at risk.”

The group contends that the industry “is not a money maker. Fracking has much higher variable costs than traditional oil, and the well production is very front loaded. This means fracking producers need to drill new wells all the time just to maintain production. They were indebted before the pandemic.”

EOPCA said they had “high hopes” California would meet the state’s clean energy goals at the beginning of Newsom’s term. In 2018, Newsom pledged to protect vulnerable communities to push California beyond even the guidelines of the Paris Climate Accords to rely on entirely renewable energy sources by 2045.

Governor upholds science regarding coronavirus, but not when it comes to fracking

“The governor has upheld science and continues to promote public health when it comes to the COVID-19 virus, asking residents to wear masks,” said Harmon. “But when it comes to fracking, Newsom and science are not on the same page. EOPCA also asks him to look at the evidence that shows pollution particulates cause life threatening illnesses and to stop fracking, for unwittingly he is putting lives at risk.”

“I’m proud to serve on the steering committee of Elected Official to Protect California,” added Mayor  Harmon. “Over 310 of us have already signed a letter asking the governor to take action now to ban fracking. I believe Governor Newson does want to protect the health and wellbeing of all Californians.”

“I know we are in an emergency and COVID-19 is his priority. However, climate change is an emergency too and anything that contributes to it should stop. We must stop issuing any more fracking permits. Now more than ever, we need to protect the health and safety of all our people,” she stated.

She pointed out that one of these permits has gone to the Aliso Canyon site in Los Angeles County,  “the site of a record-setting methane blowout that spewed heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and sickened nearby residents. Newsom had pledged to permanently close the storage site, but during the confusion of the pandemic, CalGEM approved the permit.”

“We need to let the governor know the serious threat fracking represents, as it adds to temperatures rising enabling the possibility of more pandemics. Together we are stronger. Together we can convince him not to issue any new permits. It’s time the state put our lives first, not the interests of the oil and gas industry. We need to ban all fracking now,” concluded Mayor Harmon.

According to the group, “In order to extract natural gas and to dispose of their waste frack fluid, fracking requires pumping millions of gallons of fluid into the ground, contaminating drinking water and lubricating fault lines, which drastically increases seismic activity. An extremely seismically active state like California cannot handle the increased risk of earthquakes, especially under the pressures of living with COVID-19.

The group said Newsom administration “still refuses to acknowledge the impact of fracking on the environment and local communities, despite extensive evidence.”

Oil and gas drilling disproportionately impacts communities of color

A Harvard study points to the “starkly inequitable burden of the virus and ambient pollution,” noting, “communities of color are disproportionately impacted by air pollutants and are more likely to face a ‘pollution burden’ … Particularly important for hospitals in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, which tend to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution than affluent, white communities.”

“The oil and gas industry’s blatant contribution to environmental racism is particularly insidious when combined with the “statistical link between COVID-19 deaths and other diseases associated with long-term exposure to fine particulate matter,” according to the group.

Californians with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, especially those in low-income and minority communities, should not bear the burden of new fracking sites known to aggravate these medical ailments, the coalition stated. Those exposed to fracking also face a higher risk of cancer due to the release of carcinogenic gases such as benzene, neurological damage on account of volatile organic compounds, and fetal development harm (NRDC, Forbes).

Fracking also compounds water scarcity in California, the group stated. Reuters reported in 2015 that California oil producers effectively destroy 70 million gallons of water a year to sustain operations, increasing drought levels drastically.

Patrick Sullivan, speaking for Californians Against Fracking, states that “this is water that is by and large taken out of the water cycle for good… It’s too contaminated to use in any other way.”

The San Joaquin Valley, an area recently targeted for new fracking permits, is one of the country’s key agricultural areas, yet it’s also the state’s primary oil production region.

“Recently we suffered through a six-year drought which made over 60,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley experience food insecurity,” said Felipe Perez, Firebaugh City Councilmember, EOPA Steering Committee member. “Children went hungry. Some people relied on water trucks for nearly two years.”

“Groundwater withdrawals by industrial farming operations and the oil industry—including fracking—have decreased the water table. They also pollute the groundwater. Without clean water people will continue to get sick. We need to stop the permitting,” said Perez.

With a virus raging that specifically targets respiratory systems, air and water health should be of utmost concern to lawmakers and public officials, according to Perez. Human and environmental health need to be placed ahead of corporate profits. The fifth largest economy in the world should not continue to gamble on a poor return of residential health and state profits down the road.

Governor Gavin Newsom owes it to his constituents, communities disproportionately affected by the “devastating combination of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic,” and California’s renewable energy goals for the future, to stop the issuance of new fracking permits and promote a clean energy economy, emphasized Perez.

“With the stroke of a pen he could issue an executive action to halt all fracking. It’s imperative for the safety and well being of his citizens,” said Councilmember Perez. “Water is a human right.”

In addition to the fracking permits, Newsom has also approved drilling permits for more than 1,400 new oil and gas wells so far this year, according to Kretzmann. CBD obtained this number by adding the weekly numbers from CalGEM’s reports for new wells.

Twelve of those new drilling permits went to California Resources Corporation, even though multiple industry and media reports state that the company will soon be forced to file for bankruptcy.

The number of oil permits issued under Newsom since he took office in January 2019 now totals 6,168, according to a report by the FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog. The permit numbers and locations are posted and updated on an interactive map at the website: NewsomWellWatch.com

Big Oil is California’s most powerful corporate lobby

Why has Chevron and Big Oil been able to get what it wants in California during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s why: “green” image aside, California is a major oil drilling state and the oil industry is its largest and powerful corporate lobby.

Last year the Western States Petroleum Association, the single most powerful lobbying organization in the state, pumped more money into lobbying than any other organization in California, spending a total of $8.8 million. The San Ramon-based Chevron pumped the third most money into lobbying, a total of $5.9 million. The lobbying expenses of the two oil industry giants came to a total of $14.7 million.

During the first quarter of 2020, at the same time that the Newsom Administration approved 1,623 new permits, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), spent $1,089,702 lobbying state officials.

Chevron spent even more: $1,638,497 in the fifth quarter of the 2019-20 legislation session to influence legislators, the Governor’s Office and other state officials. The two oil industry giants combined to spend a total of $2,728,199 lobbying in the session’s fifth quarter.

Big Oil’s well connected lobbyists

Steve Horn, investigative journalist, recently revealed in Capital and Main Governor Newsom’s connections to lobbyists working for Aera Energy, the recipient of 24 drilling permits from the Newsom Administration in April: https://capitalandmain.com/gavin-newsom-hands-out-fracking-permits-to-connected-driller-0619

Horn reported:

“Aera, which also received 24 permits from the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) on April 3 during the early days of COVID-19, has well-connected lobbyists in its corner who work for the firm Axiom Advisors.

One of them, Jason Kinney, headed up Newsom’s 2018 transition team and formerly served as a senior advisor to Newsom while he was lieutenant governor. He is also a senior advisor to California’s Senate Democrats. The other, Kevin Schmidt, previously served as policy director for Newsom when the latter was lieutenant governor. Aera paid Axiom $110,000 for its lobbying work in 2019 and, so far in 2020, has paid $30,000, lobbying reports reveal.

Axiom’s lobbying disclosure records show both Kinney and Schmidt listed as lobbyists and Aera as one of the firm’s clients. Kinney’s wife, Mary Gonsalvez Kinney, was also the stylist for Newsom’s wife–Jennifer Siebel Newsom–dating back to their time spent living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kinney and Schmidt did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.”

Big Oil’s tentacles extend far and wide in California politics. Lobbying is just one of the methods that Big Oil uses in California to exercise inordinate influence over California regulators. WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: (5) working in collaboration with media; and (6) contributing to non profit organizations. For more information, read: www.counterpunch.org/

The mission of EOPA: To create a safe, prosperous, and healthy planet, we empower leadership from elected officials and civic leaders to protect our environment, and fight the climate crisis. As current and former elected officials who care deeply about protecting our planet and people from the dangers of climate change, EOPA educates through value-based storytelling, trains lawmakers, and connects elected officials to inspire strong environmental policy. Lawmakers who are veterans and elected officials lead our mission.

About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.

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