Gov. Gavin Newsom took unprecedented action against California's oil industry Friday with a pair of orders aimed at banning the controversial oilfield technique known as fracking by 2024, then ending in-state petroleum production altogether by 2045 to help address climate change.
The moves, a departure from the governor's campaign to curtail oil production through ever-tighter regulations, incensed industry and Central Valley politicians worried about the loss of good-paying local jobs. They drew criticism as well from environmentalists pushing for quicker action.
Newsom's actions followed the defeat last week of a state bill that would have phased out fracking and other important oilfield techniques by 2024. A response to the governor's September request for anti-fracking legislation, Senate Bill 467 also would have established a nearly half-mile health and safety buffer around oil operations.
“The climate crisis is real, and we continue to see the signs every day,” Newsom said in a Friday news release. “As we move to swiftly decarbonize our transportation sector and create a healthier future for our children, I’ve made it clear I don’t see a role for fracking in that future and similarly, believe that California needs to move beyond oil.”
The moves added new urgency to efforts to diversify the economy of Kern County, home to roughly three-quarters of California's oil production.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a decades-old practice responsible for a tenth or more of the state's oil production. It injects water, sand and sometimes toxic chemicals deep underground to break open petroleum reservoirs.
Environmental groups say the technique risks polluting water aquifers and that it leads to air pollution through methane releases and flaring. Oil companies insist the practice is done safely and that there is no evidence of water contamination in California due to fracking.
The order comes more than seven years after California passed its first law specific to fracking. That law, 2013's Senate Bill 4, put in place several measures to protect aquifers and monitor oilfields for seismic activity and aquifer pollution.
Under Newsom, state oil regulators have clamped down on fracking, requiring that permits be cleared by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the Bay Area. Partly as a result of that scrutiny, California's rate of issuing hydraulic fracturing permits has tumbled.
The administration has also placed a moratorium on high-pressure cyclic steaming, a technique used commonly in Kern that has been blamed for a series of uncontrolled surface releases of oil and associated fluids.
Meanwhile, the state continues work on new rules that may involve creating a buffer similar to the one proposed by SB 467.
On Friday, the governor specifically called on oil regulators at the state Geologic Energy Management Division to halt permitting of fracking permits by January 2024. But he turned to the California Air Resources Board to look at ways to end all in-state oil production as part of the state's goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045.
Environmental and environmental-justice groups were expecting the order to arrive Thursday with a gubernatorial visit to Kern on Earth Day. That didn't happen, and some were dismayed to learn fracking would be around another three years and oil production another 22.
“It’s historic and globally significant that Gov. Newsom has committed California to phase out fossil fuel production and ban fracking, but we don’t have time for studies and delays," Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. "Every fracking and drilling permit issued does more damage to our health and climate.”
But within the state's Kern-centric oil industry, both executive orders were met with suspicions that Newsom had overstepped his authority and disregarded his earlier pledge to promote the economic health of the Central Valley.
“It’s disappointing that the governor’s legally questionable announcement will undermine California’s climate leadership," Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association trade group, said in a statement. "Curbing in-state production through a well stimulation ban would not change the fact that Californians demand 1.4 million barrels of oil each day."
A central question in Kern is what the state is going to do to mitigate the two executive orders' local economic impacts, not only in terms of jobs but also the oil property taxes that contribute heavily to the county's tax revenues.
BUILDING A BRIDGE
Kate Gordon, director of the governor's Office of Planning and Research, told The Californian Friday the administration expects to release a roadmap in July on how the state will promote the kind of economic diversification that will help Kern absorb the loss of oil jobs.
California is among different governments around the world trying to find a responsible path for transitioning away from petroleum, she said. It won't be simple and is likely to involve job training and infrastructure development, as well as a greater focus on renewable fuels that, though opposed by some environmental groups, are viewed by the administration as part of the transition to cleaner energy.
Emphasizing the state has been a primary financial contributor to Kern's B3K economic development collaboration, Gordon dismissed the idea there will be a new job created for every oil job lost.
"There's never in history been a one-for-one replacement of one type of industry with another type of industry," she said. "We need to look at building up other industries and doing investment across the board and other industries."