California May Finally Join the Ranks of States with Fossil Fuel Setbacks

Senate committee to vote today on a bill mandating a minimum distance between oil and gas wells and sensitive sites like schools and hospitals.

California is well known for for its leadership on environmental issues. In just the past few years the Golden State has taken on the Trump Administration over vehicle emissions standards, fought to preserve its landmark carbon cap-and-trade program, and sued the feds over the rollback of Obama-era water and stream protections.

drill tower in LA
A drill tower breaks the Los Angeles skyline. Towers like these dot a residential community on top of Signal Hill in Los Angeles, CA. An estimated 2.1 million Californians, the majority in Kern County and Los Angeles, live within 1 mile of an active oil or gas well. Photo by Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking.

The Golden State is also, however, a significant oil and gas producer, and it has not shown the same leadership when it comes to protecting its citizens from environmental health hazards created by the fossil fuel industry. While many other oil-producing states have setback requirements that establish minimum distances between oil and gas wells and homes or other high-density areas, California does not.

That could soon change. Last month, the California State Assembly passed a bill that would require the state to adopt a minimum setback distance between oil and gas activities and sensitive locations like hospitals, residences, and schools. Assembly Bill 345 would specifically recommend a 2,500-foot setback for schools, playgrounds, and other facilities where children are likely to be present. The Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources is expected to vote on the bill today.

If signed into law, the bill would represent a significant victory for environmental justice advocates who have been long been pointing to the environmental burden posed by fossil fuel development in the state, including a coalition of more than 120 labor, health, and environmental groups that have thrown their support behind the bill.

“We’ve heard from the community loud and clear that the number one priority for environmental justice communities across the state is to adopt a 2,500 foot setback between oil and gas drilling and sensitive places such as homes, schools, hospitals, and playgrounds to make sure that Californians are protected from the negative health impacts associated with oil and gas drilling,” Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of the California-based Center on Race Poverty and the Environment, told me during an interview on KPFA’s Terra Verde radio program last month.

An estimated 2.1 million Californians, the majority in Kern County and Los Angeles, live within 1 mile of an active oil or gas well. According to a recent investigation by the Los Angeles Times and Center for Public Integrity, some 2 million Californians also live within a half-mile of an unplugged idle well, many of them low-income people of color. Despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s campaign pledge to ban fracking in California, his administration lifted a moratorium on new fracking permits in April, and has issued several dozen permits since.

The health impacts of living in proximity to oil and gas development have been well documented over the past two decades and include increased risk of respiratory problems, asthma, birth defects, preterm birth, and even cancer. Exposure to contaminants is worst for those living within a half-mile (2,640 feet) of a well, but even those living a mile or more from fossil fuel operations can suffer higher pollution rates and associated health risks. Exposure to air pollution has also been linked to worse Covid-19 outcomes.

Two new California-based studies add to the growing body of research on the subject. One, conducted by researchers at Stanford University, found that pregnant women living within six miles of oil and gas wells in California’s San Joaquin valley were up to 14 percent more likely to experience pre-term birth. The second, out of the University of California, Berkeley, found that pregnant women living within 0.6 miles of an oil or gas well were more likely to have babies with low birth weights. (That study, notably, did not find a correlation between proximity to oil and gas wells and preterm birth.)

“This bill will help protect our most vulnerable residents who, by no fault of their own, are being exposed to toxins that are affecting their health,” Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, the bill’s author, said in a statement.

AB345 is meant to dovetail with changes at the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), the state agency tasked with both promoting oil and gas extraction and regulating it. Historically, the agency has not been known as a protector of public health.

Last year, however, CalGEM revised its mission to incorporate a public health mandate and is embarking on a rulemaking process around how to do so. AB345 directs the agency to adopt a setback rule as part of this process. “We think it’s important that the legislature have a voice here in terms of putting parameters on CalGEMs rulemaking process,” says Brostrom. “Without AB345, we have no assurance that CalGEM will adopt a setback.”

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry, which wields considerable influence in the California, is doing what it can to defeat the bill, arguing that oil and gas extraction doesn’t impact public health (see this take-down of the argument here) and that the bill would lead to billions in lost revenue for the state.

“We are really hoping that the legislature will listen to its residents, which overwhelmingly, by 79 percent, support oil and gas setbacks, rather than listen to the oil and gas executives who care more about their bottom lines than public health,” Brostrom says.

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