California Governor Gavin Newsom has set some of the country’s most ambitious goals to wean its state off oil, including a ban on the sale of new gasoline cars by 2035 and ending oil production a decade longer. late.
But in the short term, it’s a rule-making process in one of its agencies that environmentalists look forward to most. They say it will show the first-year Democrat’s true commitment to meaningful action during his tenure as governor.
The question is whether California should impose a buffer zone between oil drilling sites and homes, schools and hospitals. Despite its reputation as a climate leader, California has no statewide limit, unlike other oil-producing states including Pennsylvania and Colorado. Even Texas prohibits wells within 142 yards of a property line.
California environmentalists want an area of 762 meters, which would be the largest of any state. They point to studies that show that living near active drilling sites can increase the risk of birth defects, cancer, breathing problems, and other health problems. This is in addition to loud sounds and foul smells. It is unclear how far the agency will go and whether rules would apply to new drilling, existing wells, or both.
The agency’s leadership has political implications for Newsom as he faces a recall election slated for the fall. Newsom’s generally friendly unions that represent workers are aligned with the powerful oil industry, which says a statewide rule on the so-called setbacks would cost jobs and raise fuel prices.
This leaves Newsom stuck between two important Democratic electoral blocs – workers and environmentalists – that he needs this year and, if he survives, in his 2022 reelection bid.
“The way he moves is going to motivate and encourage voters or discourage them,” said Gladys Limon, executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “This will define the direction in which communities will move for the next elections.”
In 2019, Newsom’s first year as governor, he changed the name and focus of the California Oil and Gas Agency. The Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources Division is now the Geological Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, and Newsom has made health and safety part of its mission. He specifically told the agency to consider banning oil and gas activities near homes, schools, hospitals and parks.
Eighteen months later, regulators are still deliberating and last year they approved nearly 300 new oil and gas permits within 2,500 feet of homes, schools and health care facilities, according to Earthjustice, a environmental law group. Regulators delayed the planned publication of the draft rules in December and now say they will come this spring, although no date has been set. Even so, the rules will not be final, although they will indicate the direction the Newsom administration wants to take.
Oil has long posed a political conundrum for ruling Democrats in California, the seventh largest oil-producing state. Former Gov. Jerry Brown, hailed internationally as a climate champion, has been kicked home for not taking on the industry more aggressively. In the legislature, efforts to establish setbacks have repeatedly failed.
The Western States Petroleum Association opposes a statewide mandate, saying such rules should be decided locally and based on region-specific health and environmental concerns. He has an ally in the State Building and Construction Trades Council, a major union.
“A one-size-fits-all approach like the one we think would be bad public policy and almost by definition it doesn’t take into account the science, the data and what’s really going on on the ground in a particular location,” said Kevin Slagle. , vice president of strategic communications for WSPA.
He underscored the group’s support for a Kern County process that requires every drilling project to be assessed for recoil purposes.
An estimated 2 million Californians live within 2,500 feet of an active oil well, according to Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods. Most of the active wells are in Los Angeles and Kern counties.
“They can’t wait decades to bring oil wells out of their backyards,” said Ann Alexander, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
If Newsom doesn’t go far enough, some environmentalists might rethink their political support. Earlier this spring, some discussed supporting an alternative recall candidate, said RL Miller, the former head of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus. That was before Newsom announced a ban on hydraulic fracturing in 2024 – the process of extracting oil and gas buried in rock deep underground – and called on state regulators to explore the end of production. oil by 2045. She supports Newsom, and many climate groups have endorsed it, if only because they don’t see a viable alternative.
Meanwhile, unions representing workers who depend on jobs linked to the oil industry say a mandated buffer zone would risk creating well-paying jobs and raising the price of fuel.
The State Building and Construction Trades Council, a powerful force in Sacramento, represents approximately 100,000 people in industry-related jobs including pipe laying and electrical and iron work, said President Robbie Hunter.
The WSPA spent over $ 1.3 million lobbying the State Capitol in the first three months of the year. The National Building and Construction Trades Council spent $ 87,000. Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council spent $ 59,000 and the California Environmental Justice Alliance, $ 13,500, according to state campaign funding records.
The building union is opposed to the recall, Hunter said. But that won’t stop its members from pushing Newsom and its administration to see their point of view. He accused environmentalists of having “extreme views”.
So far, no top Democrats are challenging Newsom, but that could change if he seems more at risk as the election draws near.
He is not directly involved in the drafting of the regulations. The oil regulator is working with 15 public health experts and has gathered more than 40,000 comments to inform its decision. But Newsom ultimately controls the management of the agency, noted Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer who studies carbon emissions.
“The ball is really in the governor’s court right now,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Adam Beam contributed to this story.