CalGEM misses crucial deadline to protect communities from neighborhood oil and gas drilling

By Ramona du Houx

On June 21, 2021, the California Geologic Energy Management (CalGEM) missed yet another deadline to draft public health regulation on neighborhood oil and gas drilling despite months of waiting and assurances that a draft rule would be released by Spring 2021.

“How much longer are our communities supposed to wait? This delay is just another in a long line that reinforces California’s legacy of environmental racism and injustice. VISIÓN will keep fighting for setbacks and to protect all residents from the possibility of Big Oil setting up shop across the street to pollute our homes and schools” said Kobi Naseck, Coalition Coordinator, Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISIÓN).

This is the second major delay in the release of a “discussion draft” of the rule, after the agency failed to release a rule by the end of 2020.

“For our communities, this delay is more than just a bureaucratic misstep,” said Dr. Catherine Garoupa White, Executive Director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ). “For us, it means more emergency room visits, more cancer diagnoses, and more missed days of school and work from asthma attacks and other health impacts. Despite the epidemic levels of sickness in the San Joaquin Valley caused by being one of the most polluted air basins in the nation for particle and ozone pollution, our state and local governments refuse to do the bare minimum to protect people from the oil and gas industry’s harmful pollutants: We demand 2,500 setbacks now.”

CalGEM was tasked with developing a proposed oil and gas buffer rule by Governor Gavin Newsom in a November 2019 directive. The directive, which was applauded by environmental justice communities and advocates, required the Department of Conservation to establish a transparent set of rules to protect residents living near oil and gas extraction sites. CalGEM, however, continues to drag its feet. More than five million Californians live within a mile of active oil and gas operations.

“Dangerous air has set environmental justice communities back for long enough. Putting off the long overdue protections shows Californians that CalGEM is still willing to sacrifice low-income communities. It is clear CalGEM does not respect the urgency needed to prevent further damage and inequity in our communities. Living in proximity to oil operations causes birth defects, respiratory damage, and exposes Californians to cancer causing chemicals. The science is clear, lack of action is disrespectful to environmental justice communities. We deserve better,” said Cesar Aguirre, community organizer with Central California Environmental Justice Network.

Proximity to oil production sites increases exposure to toxic chemicals and byproducts of California’s industrial oil operations, which take place just feet away from homes, schools, parks, and hospitals. For years, affected frontline residents and environmental justice advocates have called on CalGEM to consider the health impacts of neighborhood oil and gas drilling, including: preterm birth, low birth weights, asthma and other respiratory diseases, hospitalization for heart failure, fatigue, stress, severe cases of COVID-19 and cancers.

In California, neighborhood oil and gas extraction threatens life expectancy and overwhelmingly affects low-income communities and Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color, a clear form of environmental racism.

This summer, those same residents left unprotected from neighborhood oil and gas drilling are also facing increasingly dangerous air pollution, wildfire smoke, and heat.

In early 2020, CalGEM convened a set of pre-rulemaking public health workshops, and the agency later received an executive order from Governor Gavin Newsom that set a deadline for a draft rule on setbacks by December 31, 2020.

Thousands of frontline community residents and environmental advocates attended in-person and online webinars hosted by CalGEM to urge the agency to develop a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer to protect communities. Over 40,000 public comments overwhelmingly in support of a minimum 2,500 ft setback were submitted, the most received in the agency’s history, yet CalGEM missed the December 2020 deadline to produce a health rule.

The agency then took months to contract academic public health experts to weigh in, though the state’s own scientists already identified the health threats posed by proximity to oil sites six years ago. The results of the public health expert panel’s recommendation have not been made public, nor has a draft rule been released.

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