Burning fossil fuels is like pissing in the community pool. It’s a really bad idea. Extracting fossil fuels by fracking makes the problem much, much worse. With most of American government owned lock, stock, and 55-gallon barrel by those who work overtime to convince the people that human waste in the pool is actually a good thing (and tens of millions of Americans believe that!), getting companies to stop fracking is almost impossible.
Most people don’t realize that California is a major producer of oil and gas. In 2018, the 72,000 onshore and offshore oil producing wells in California yielded 165.3 million barrels of oil, according to the California Department of Conservation. The Golden State also consumes more gasoline than any other state — 366 million barrels in 2017 according to the US Energy Information Administration.
All that oil flowing into and out of California means there are plenty of petrodollars sloshing around the state capitol in Sacramento. The news organization Maplight reported last year that oil and gas interests have contributed $170 million to California political campaigns since 2001.
Nevertheless, Governor Gavin Newsom this week halted the approval of new hydraulic fracturing in California until the permits for those projects can be reviewed by an independent panel of scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.
The Governor also stopped the issuance of any new permits for steam injected oil drilling, an extraction technique linked to a massive petroleum spill in Kern County over the summer. More than 900,000 gallons of oil and brine escaped from a Chevron facility in that part of the state last summer. State regulators fined Chevron $2.7 million for violations at the oil field, but once oil escapes into the environment, all the money in the world won’t offset the environmental damage it causes.
“These are necessary steps to strengthen oversight of oil and gas extraction as we phase out our dependence on fossil fuels and focus on clean energy sources,” Newsom said in a statement Tuesday. “This transition cannot happen overnight; it must advance in a deliberate way to protect people, our environment, and our economy.”
The state is considering adding buffer zones between oil wells located near residential neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and other facilities that could be exposed to hazardous fumes that result from drilling operations. Newsom has also ordered the system the state uses to issue fracking permits to be audited by the Department of Finance to determine if it complies with state law. That agency has been asked to recommend ways to strengthen the permitting process.
Don’t Expect A Thank You
Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Assn., told the LA Times that California already has some of the strictest regulations and environmental protections in the world and that curtailing oil production in the state will have serious consequences.
“It is disappointing that the state would pursue additional studies when multiple state agencies already validate our protection of health, safety and the environment during production,” she said. “These agencies should also consider reliability, affordability and resilience of our energy supply, as every barrel delayed or not produced in this state will only increase imports from more costly foreign sources that do not share our environmental and safety standards.”
State Senate Republican leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield expressed similar concerns and said Newsom’s actions could be crippling to California’s oil industry. “The bulk of Kern County’s new oil production will be severely impacted by this policy, as well as future capital investment by the producers. If those producers cannot confidently invest in this area, then they will invest elsewhere. The reduction in capital investment will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars in the next twelve months.”
Translation? Nothing should stop oil production in California. Not rolling infernos that wipe out entire communities. Not droughts that last for years. Not poor air quality that makes people sick and shortens their lives. The more people pissing in the pool the better, apparently.
After Newsom was sworn in as governor of California, he came under intense pressure from environmental groups and has faced pressure from politically influential environmental groups to ban new oil and gas drilling and completely phase out fossil fuel extraction in California, one of the nation’s top petroleum-producing states. But Newsom adopted a more measured approach that takes into account the effects on oil workers and California cities and counties that are economically dependent on the petroleum industry.
Environmental Groups Applaud
“This marks the turning of the tide against the oil industry, which has been allowed to drill at will in our state for more than 150 years,” said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips said previous governors had the opportunity to act as Newsom did but refused, a thinly veiled knock on former governor Jerry Brown, who refused to impose an outright ban on fracking despite pleas by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to do so. During a 2018 climate summit in San Francisco, the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog ran a local television ad showing a young girl calling the governor “cruel and heartless” for allowing oil rigs near residential areas.
“It pays when you elect someone who is not beholden to the oil industry,” Phillips said. “[Newsom] promised while he was running for office that he wasn’t going to be intimidated by the oil industry, and this sort of shows that’s true. It’s more than any other governor has done in a single day to rein in oil pollution.”
Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court was one of the first people to notice that the rate of fracking approvals nearly doubled after Newsom took office. His exposé is one of the factors that contributed to Newsom’s decision to end approval of all new fracking permits. Court told the LA Times, “Today’s announcement is a really welcome step in the right direction to create greater scientific scrutiny of questionable well exploration and drill tactics that have been given a rubber stamp under Gov. Brown and the first six months of his administration.”
A Multi-Billion Dollar Industry
California faces the same conundrum as every local, state, or national government. Modern society is built on cheap energy from burning fossil fuels. Disrupting the status quo is going to inflict economic pain on millions of people. The oil industry in California added $152 billion in total economic output to the California economy, paid $26 billion in wages to workers supported by the oil and gas industry, and contributed $21.6 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue in 2017, according to a report by the Western States Petroleum Association.
Even though polls show a majority of California residents strongly support stricter limits on emissions from electrical generating facilities and oppose fracking and offshore oil wells, turning one’s back on that kind of economic muscle is hard.
Give California credit. At least it is trying to find a path forward that will protect its citizens from the harm caused by extracting and burning fossil fuels. Most other states not only don’t have answers to the threats posed by the fossil fuel industry, they don’t even know what questions to ask.
Humanity is in a race against time to shift away from a fossil fuel based economy but is falling further and further behind every day as it watches helplessly while the oil and gas companies pump more and more carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
We are approaching the point where there is more urine than water in the community pool, but we simply don’t know how to stop doing what we have done for the past 150 years. We’d best figure it out soon, though, before everything and everyone we cherish perishes from the face of the Earth.