California's oil industry faces a familiar but growing regulatory challenge as the Newsom administration prepares to decide whether to establish buffer zones between petroleum production facilities and environmentally sensitive sites such as homes and schools.
Environmental justice advocates have long said that people who live, work or study near oil and gas wells suffer disproportionately from a variety of serious health problems. But the industry denies any connection exists between proximity to petroleum production sites and health risks.
Researchers have arrived at different conclusions on the matter. But a recent review commissioned by the city of Los Angeles suggests that the majority of relevant peer-reviewed studies have found that close proximity to oil and gas production is associated with exposure to high concentrations of dangerous air pollutants. (The review can be found online at www.psehealthyenergy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Literature-Review.pdf.)
"The science is relatively clear," wrote the study's authors, Seth B.C. Shonkoff and Lee Ann L. Hill with Oakland-based nonprofit PSE Healthy Energy, "that the development of oil and gas immediately adjacent to places where people live, work and play poses hazards and risks to public health and that some minimum distance from sensitive receptors should be considered."
While land-use decisions are generally left up to local government, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently made it clear he wants to establish a statewide standard within about the next 12 months. Deliberations are expected to weigh input from oil producers as well as minorities living near production sites.
It's unclear how strong an effect any such regulations would have on Kern's most important industry. The county's major oil fields are largely isolated from population centers, though production operations do exist not far from homes in places like Shafter.
In unincorporated areas within Kern County, no oil or gas wells may be drilled within 210 feet of "sensitive receptors" such as housing, schools, hospitals or places of public assembly. But wells may be drilled 100 feet away from a non-oil-related commercial building or a major or secondary highway.
Arvin's buffer, or setback zone, is 600 feet for sensitive receptors, or 300 feet from other structures. In the city of Carson, the setback must measure at least 750 feet. It's important to note that these buffers do not generally apply to wells drilled prior to the adoption of a setback standard.
There also are variations, such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District's rule requiring extra public health protection measures at petroleum facilities located within 1,500 feet of residences.
Lately, environmental justice activists have called for a minimum setback of 2,500 feet. They say allowing an oil or gas facility any closer than that puts people at risk of being exposed to dangerous gases that can cause cancer, neurological damage, reproductive harm and skin problems. They also say noise from petroleum sites risks damage to hearing.
State officials have reported that 9,222 active oil or gas wells, and 6,511 idle wells, are located within 2,500 feet of sensitive receptor sites.
Assembly Bill 345, proposed in February by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Rolling Hills Estates, would have imposed a 2,500-foot setback zone between new oil and gas development sites and sensitive receptors. The legislation could have resulted in an estimated $3.5 billion in lost oil production. It ended up stalling in the Assembly.
Kern County's top government planner, Lorelei Oviatt, said that calls for a 2,500-foot setback have no scientific backing. She noted that the California Air Resources Board has established a buffer of just 500 feet between sensitive receptors and freeways, which produce gasoline and diesel emissions.
Putting into place an "arbitrary” 2,500-foot buffer would deprive landowners of the use of their property, she said by email.
"Protecting our neighborhoods and communities and schools should always be a priority," she said. But she added that such protections should be "based on science not based on an arbitrary standard."
Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association trade group, noted the industry did not oppose recent measures to increase community air monitoring in oil production areas including Lost Hills. He said findings so far have not demonstrated adverse health impacts from living near oil and gas production.
“Anti-oil activists prefer to ignore science and simply want to shut down all production,” he said by email.
CALLS FOR CHANGE
One group calling to establish a statewide, 2,500-foot setback standard is Elected Officials to Protect California, a group of more than 300 elected officials from 49 of the state's 58 counties.
The coalition has supported the idea of a buffer as part of an effort to curtail oil production for the purposes of fighting climate change and reducing environmental pollution. It says harm from living near petroleum production falls disproportionately on minorities and the poor.
Juan Flores, a community organizer for the Delano-based Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said he is not in favor of suddenly shutting down oil production in California. But he said he supports establishment of a statewide standard for oil buffer zones.
When three oil wells were being drilled in 2012 northeast of Shafter's Sequoia Elementary School, Flores said, neighbors complained about noise, truck traffic and nasty smells.
During the week that the wells were being worked on, he said, nearby residents remained in their houses and yet still they suffered from headaches and nosebleeds. He said the neighbors felt "kidnapped" by the oil activity.
Under Gov. Newsom, the state's primary oil-regulating agency, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (soon to be renamed the Geologic Energy Management Division) recently announced that rules for public health and safety protections near oil and gas production facilities "will be updated and strengthened."
It said proposed regulations will be considered in consultation with communities near oil and gas operations, petroleum companies and other stakeholders including local governments, academics and environmental advocates.
State Oil & Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk said in an emailed statement Friday that the division's mission is evolving and that there will be a "more intense focus" on protecting health, safety and the environment.
"Among our chief goals is strengthening the regulations to ensure the protection of residents close to oil and gas production sites," he stated.
"Currently, we are reaching out to stakeholders for input on shaping the pre-rulemaking process and working out the logistics for workshops that will start early next year," Ntuk continued. "Workshops will take place in multiple communities, including Bakersfield and the Los Angeles Basin.”