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California Regulators Approve 12 New Permits for Chevron to Frack in Kern County

As Tribes, conservationists and environmental justice advocates were celebrating a federal ruling temporarily halting operations by the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline, anti-fracking activists in California were disturbed that California regulators are continuing to approve new permits for fracking in the San Joaquin Valley.

The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CALGEM),  the oil and gas regulatory agency under California Governor Gavin Newsom, issued 12 new permits for Chevron to conduct fracking in the Lost Hills Oil Field in Kern County on Thursday, July 2, just before the holiday weekend.

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. 

“It’s outrageous that Gov. Newsom is handing out fracking permits during a pandemic that disproportionately harms polluted communities,” said Kretzmann. “The governor needs to stop recklessly approving fracking and new oil and gas drilling. Instead of restarting fracking in areas already suffering from dirty air, Newsom should direct oil companies to start plugging these dangerous wells to create jobs and move us away from polluting fossil fuels.”

Chevron operations have experienced numerous spills over the past year. “CalGEM adopted new regulations that eliminated the prohibition on injecting steam above the fracture pressure,” noted Kretzmann. “Soon thereafter, major spills (“surface expressions”) started occurring in oil fields that used high pressure steam injection. Yet CalGEM continues to issue new drilling and fracking permits to this company.” 

48 new fracking permits issued since end of moratorium

Newson ended a moratorium on fracking permits in April when the California Geologic Energy Management Division approved 24 new permits for Aera Energy LLC. Including Chevron’s new permits, Newsom has now granted a total of 48 fracking permits since ending the moratorium, according to Kretzmann.

“Because each permit allows an operator to frack the same well multiple times, the actual number of fracking events authorized is 360,” explained Kretzmann.

To get the 360 figure, Kretzmann took the CEQA Project Descriptions from the earlier Aera proposals and added the stages to Chevron’s stages.

The fracking will occur in Kern County, the center of the oil industry in California that already suffers from some of the poorest air quality in the nation. This means more environmental injustice for low income communities and communities of color.

“Low-income communities and communities of color have suffered disproportionately from the adverse health impacts of oil and gas development,” said Kretzmann. “Fracking releases toxic air contaminants and volatile organic compounds directly and can contribute to smog indirectly, causing a host of adverse health impacts. These emissions occur in areas that already have some of the poorest air quality in the nation.”

“To make matters worse, multiple studies have shown that poor air quality increases a communities vulnerability to the coronavirus. Fracking and wastewater disposal can also cause water contamination. Numerous health studies have demonstrated the adverse health impacts of people living near active oil and gas development,” noted Kretzmann. 

“In California, low income communities and communities of color are disproportionately near these dangerous wells. Fracking also sends oil and gas to refineries, which also cause harm to the communities near those downstream facilities,” he added.  

1400 new oil and gas well permits issued so far this year

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.  

On Thursday, 12 of those new drilling permits went to California Resources Corporation, even though multiple reports state that the company will soon be forced to file for bankruptcy. 

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported on June 8 that California Resources “is preparing for near-term bankruptcy filing” and “could seek Chapter 11 protection to restructure about $5 billion of debt.” The article link is available here: www.wsj.com/…

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   

It would cost more than $9.2 billion to properly plug California’s existing oil and gas wells, and operators have not set aside nearly enough money to pay for this legally required cleanup, according to a California Council on Science and Technology report.

“Approving these permits is especially dangerous now, after multiple studies have shown air pollution increases our vulnerability to coronavirus,” Kretzmann said. “Each new well and fracking event is another step backwards for public health and climate change.”

Kretzmann said studies have linked fracking and oil extraction to a variety of air pollution problems, including increased smog levels. Researchers have found increased rates of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases in places with higher air pollution.

In June, the Center and the Last Chance Alliance submitted one of more than 40,000 public comments calling for the state’s oil and gas regulator to adopt a health and safety buffer that would require a minimum distance of 2,500 feet between oil and gas operations and sensitive receptors such as homes, schools, and hospitals. However, the Newsom administration has yet to release a set of proposed health and safety regulations, noted Kretzmann.

Despite California’s image as a “green” and “progressive” leader, there has been an expansion of oil and gas drilling in the state by both Governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom — and most of these new wells are located in communities with above average poverty rates and/or communities of color.

The state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) approved 21,397 new wells between Jan. 1, 2011 and April 14, 2018, according to a 2018 analysis from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

“Of the 16,554 of those wells with available geographic information, 76 percent are located in communities with above-average poverty rates for California, while 67 percent are located in communities of color,” said CBD.

Groups from the Last Chance Alliance respond to new Chevron permits

As climate justice advocates celebrate legal victories in the battle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline,  the Last Chance Alliance and its member groups issued the following statements:

“Decades of unequal protections and regulatory failures in California have concentrated the health risks of oil operations in low-income communities and communities of color, further contributing to stark racial inequities in today’s public health crisis,” the Alliance stated. “Black and Brown Californians are more likely to die from the coronavirus due to exposure to toxic particulate matter. By increasing dangerous drilling and fracking overwhelmingly located in communities of color, Governor Newsom undermines his own public statements supporting racial justice during what could be the largest public uprising in the country’s history.” 

“Governor Newsom’s administration has approved 12 more fracking permits as the state experiences its largest wave of COVID-19 cases to date, and new research shows that Black and Latinx people are twice as likely to die from the virus than white individuals,” said Caroline Henderson, Senior Climate Campaigner at Greenpeace USA. “These new permits, like the others, will further exacerbate air pollution and poison Black and Brown communities, worsening the dual public health crises they face.” 

“Our members are among the hundreds of health professionals across the state who submitted comments to CalGEM detailing the mounting evidence of serious health harms from oil and gas drilling, harms that disproportionately impact communities of color” says Cynthia Mahoney MD of Climate Health Now. “To allow new permits in the midst of a pandemic that is doubly impacting  already overburdened communities -especially our communities of color, means that Governor Newsom is not protecting our health. It is like providing more cigarettes to the smokers in a room where someone is suffering a heart attack.” 

“A recent report on refinery decommissioning outlines the connection between oil production, oil refining and environmental racism, and the immediate need to start phasing California off of oil,” said Zeiser, Climate Campaigner at Stand.earth. “This report clearly shows why Gov. Newsom must stop permitting any new oil and gas infrastructure, starting with rescinding these twelve permits to frack. As long as California has been a state, industrial development has disproportionately damaged Indigenous and environmental justice communities. We desperately need Gov. Newsom to be the leader that California, the climate, and frontline communities need.” 

“Governor Newsom’s hypocrisy on fracking is blatant and distressing. Actions speak louder than words, and Newsom’s grand promises to ban fracking are a farce in light of the expansion of the practice under his watch,” said Alexandra Nagy, California Director of Food & Water Action. “Governor Newsom must cut his cozy ties with Big Oil and keep his promise to ban fracking. Furthermore, we need Newsom to be the climate leader and public health defender Californians deserve by halting all new oil and gas drilling now.”

Why the increase in oil drilling permits?

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, which received 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. 

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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