Environmental justice groups haven’t gotten much traction lately in their campaign to get state regulators to override a recent oil industry victory on permitting near sensitive sites.
Data sent out Wednesday by Last Chance Alliance shows that although approvals for new drilling remain scarce, the California Geologic Energy Management Division has given out 56 permits so far this year for well rework jobs within 3,200 feet of homes and other sites classified as off limits to such work under legislation signed last fall by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The law, Senate Bill 1137, was put on hold pending the results of an industry-sponsored referendum headed for the November 2024 general election. Even so, anti-oil activists have called for the Newsom administration to ban such work anyway by exercising the same sort of discretion the governor has used to impose a de-facto moratorium on the controversial well-completion practice known as fracking.
Reworks can serve different purposes, from repairing existing wells to bringing them back up to earlier production levels. Environmental justice activists say doing so releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
They expressed concern rework permits issued during the first week of March exceeded the number issued the entire month of February.
“This is exactly the free-for-all that California's oil industry wanted when they bought their way onto the ballot and forced the stay of SB 1137,” organizer Cesar Aguirre with the Central California Environmental Justice Network said in a news release Wednesday.
Industry representatives countered that CalGEM has no choice in light of January’s certification of the referendum giving oil producers until at least late 2024 to continue conventional oilfield practices even within the 3,200-foot buffer zones intended to protect nearby residents from emissions attributed to breathing and other health problems.
“We don’t think CalGEM has the discretion to deny permits that have to meet all the requirements of the law and regulations,” said CEO Rock Zierman of the California Independent Petroleum Association trade group. “That would be arbitrary and capricious.” He noted the industry is challenging Newsom’s de-facto fracking moratorium.
Since Newsom took office in 2019, reworks have given the industry an opening to maintain production levels at a time when new drilling has largely been taken off the table.
CalGEM data analyzed and presented publicly last month by the Western States Petroleum Association trade group shows the administration has altered the historical pattern of rough parity among new drilling, reworks and well plugging.
Figures show that, in the last four years, CalGEM has dramatically increased permitting for well plugging and abandonment jobs while new drilling permits have declined sharply and activity like reworks, well deepening and sidetracks slowed at a more gradual pace.
State data analyzed by Western Program Coordinator Kyle Ferrar at FracTracker Alliance shows the nearly 200 rework approvals issued by CalGEM since last year, including those within 3,200 feet of sensitive sites, range as far south as Orange County and as far north as Glenn County.
In Kern, the rework permits were for work in the central and western parts of the county, with eight locations within 3,200 feet of a sensitive site — three along the valley portion of the Kern River, three in Derby Acres, one northeast of Lamont and one near Highway 178 in or near the Kern River Canyon.
CalGEM noted in an email Wednesday the state’s oil production continues to decline regardless of the pace at which oilfield permits go out. It emphasized that the agency last year permitted plugging and abandonment work at twice the rate it approved all other oilfield activity.
“This trend will only continue,” it added, “as California transitions away from fossil fuels.”