Newsom bans new California fracking permits starting in 2024

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Phil Willon, Taryn Luna
·9 min read
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McKittrick, California-APRIL 29, 2020-There are over 1,100 producing oil wells in the McKittrick oil field, just north of the town of McKittrick on Cal. State Route 33. With the falling price of oil, some pumpjacks that need repair are being left idle. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
Oil wells just north of the town of McKittrick in Kern County. The governor would like to ban all new permits for fracking starting in 2024. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday took action to ban new permits for hydraulic fracturing starting in 2024, halting the controversial oil extraction method reviled by environmental activists, and called on regulators to evaluate phasing out all oil production in the state by 2045.

Newsom's announcement comes as a recall campaign against him appears close to qualifying for the ballot and is a reversal from the governor's previous statements that he lacked the executive authority to ban hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. Newsom recently decided to use the state's environmental regulatory authority after efforts to pass the ban legislatively failed, an administration spokesperson said.

The statewide ban on new fracking permits will be imposed administratively in 2024 by the state Department of Conservation, which regulates California's oil and gas industry, giving the agency time to draft the new mandate.

Newsom is asking the California Air Resources Board to analyze how to end all oil extraction in the state by 2045. The governor's office said that plan would dovetail with California’s effort to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2045, including Newsom's call to ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles in the state by 2035.

“The climate crisis is real, and we continue to see the signs every day,” Newsom said in a statement released Friday. “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.”

Under Newsom's plan, the air resources agency will evaluate the economic, environmental and health benefits and effects of eliminating oil extraction, and his administration will also determine how to address the loss of jobs and the effects on local economies due to the policy.

Leaders from state trade unions, whose membership includes pipe fitters and electrical workers at California's refineries and in other sectors of the petroleum industry, issued a scathing response to the action, saying it would cost thousands of well-paying union jobs and devastate the economies in towns in the heart of California oil country, including in Kern County.

"Every student, every firefighter and every resident of Kern County will be hurt by the governor's political announcement today," said John Spaulding of Bakersfield, executive secretary of the Building Trades Council for Kern, Inyo and Mono counties. "We will work to oppose this effort for our membership, their families, our schools and our future. I have one question for Gavin Newsom: Are our jobs too dirty for you?"

Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, said Newsom's actions will lead to thousands of lost jobs, exporting them to foreign countries, much like what happened after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992.

"This announcement, steeped in politics rather than facts and science, will bring about the loss of tens of thousands of good, middle-class, blue-collar jobs and double the cost of gasoline and diesel, adding more weight to the backs of already struggling California families," Hunter said.

Environmentalists have been pushing to outlaw fracking in California for years without success. The ban announced Friday is more symbolic than industry-changing: Fracking accounts for just 2% of the oil production in the state, according to the Department of Conservation.

Still, Newsom's actions on Friday sent a strong message to the nation and the world about California's future, said Jared Blumenfeld, California's secretary of environmental protection.

"This would be the first jurisdiction in the world to end oil extraction," he said. "It's a big deal. I think it really helps frame all the other activities that we're doing something really important and it's a clear signal that we need to build a just transition for that industry."

The response by environmental activists on Friday was overwhelmingly positive, including from politically influential groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California League of Conservation Voters. Other groups, however, said Newsom's plan to phase out oil production in the state needed to be accelerated, saying vulnerable communities near oil fields and refineries cannot afford to wait until 2045 when they face serious hazards to their health right now.

"We don’t have time for studies and delays," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Californians living next to these dirty and dangerous drilling operations need protection from oil industry pollution today. Every fracking and drilling permit issued does more damage to our health and climate.”

In September, Newsom called on lawmakers to send him legislation banning the oil extraction practice. That pronouncement was greeted with skepticism by lawmakers who said barring the controversial practice would require more from Newsom than just words.

Sweeping legislation to ban fracking and other "enhanced oil recovery" methods, as well as to mandate health and safety buffer zones around oil and gas wells, failed in the state Senate last week. R.L. Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party's environmental caucus, criticized Newsom for not doing more to support the bill, even though the legislation went far beyond his request for solely a ban on fracking.

The bill's co-author, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), said from the outset that the proposal would have a major effect on oil production in California and face significant obstacles in Sacramento.

Wiener's bill and other calls for a ban on fracking have faced strong opposition from California’s oil industry, which holds tremendous political sway among Central Valley legislators, along with trade unions, a powerful force within the Democratic Party. A proposed fracking moratorium stalled in the Legislature in 2014.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president and CEO of the Western States Petroleum Assn., criticized Newsom for ruling the state by "fiat" and said his actions will force the state to import oil from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Iraq, since the demand for gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products has not subsided in California.

"If you're going to ban production in California, that means you support crude oil coming from those places," Reheis-Boyd said. "That means you also support increasing marine tankers that carry crude oil over sensitive waterways, into already congested ports in L.A., Long Beach, San Francisco — or you must support rail traffic through sensitive areas and communities."

Since taking office, Newsom has faced pressure from 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 the Democratic governor pushed back, promising to take a more measured approach that addressed the effects on oil workers and California cities and counties that are economically dependent on the petroleum industry.

While Newsom's request amounts to only a study of phasing out oil extraction, it nevertheless is expected to rattle California's billion-dollar oil and gas industry, which already has been on the decline. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, California's crude production peaked in early 1986 and has since declined by more than two-thirds.

Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst from the nonprofit Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis, said Newsom's actions Friday will only be a "pinprick" to multinational oil companies such as Chevron. But they could have a major impact on companies that operate almost exclusively in California, some of which already have been struggling financially.

"The fact that oil companies haven't been making much money in California already — just the basic economics has not been very lucrative for them — makes it easier for Newsom to make a move like this," he said. "It's not like it's a growing and booming industry with a lot of potential for the future. This is sort of a recognition that oil is kind of on the way out in California."

Newsom previously insisted that he lacked the authority to ban fracking, a position he reiterated in September when he called on California lawmakers to impose the ban.

"We simply don't have that authority. That's why we need the Legislature to approve it.," Newsom told reporters. "It is substantive, but it also is symbolic. We have to do more on the demand side, and that's why today we think we've made a bold and big step in advancing that cause."

Wade Crowfoot, California’s Natural Resources secretary, said the governor's preference was to impose the fracking ban through legislation, but that didn't appear likely to happen.

"We're confident in our ability to prohibit the practice of fracking through this regulatory process," Crowfoot said.

Newsom spokeswoman Erin Mellon said that the governor did not have the authority to ban fracking by executive order, but the Department of Conservation, through its Geologic Energy Management Division, could do so under the agency's regulatory power delegated by the Legislature to protect public health.

Regardless, the fracking ban is expected to face a legal challenge.

Hydraulic fracking involves shooting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to extract oil and natural gas. Environmental impacts related to the oil extraction method include chemical spills, groundwater contamination and water use, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Newsom imposed a temporary moratorium on new hydraulic fracking permits in 2019, saying they should undergo independent scientific review. A year ago, however, his administration began issuing fracking permits once again, frustrating environmentalists.

During his 2018 campaign, Newsom vowed to tighten state oversight of hydraulic fracturing and oil extraction in California.

Months after taking office, Newsom fired California’s top oil industry regulator after news reports indicated that the new governor’s administration was issuing hydraulic fracturing permits at twice the rate as that under the administration of Newsom's predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown.

A 2016 poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that most likely voters in the state opposed fracking and increased oil drilling off the coast. A vast majority also favored stricter emission limits on power plants in an effort to address climate change.

California is home to 26 million vehicles with internal combustion engines, and the oil industry helps support close to 368,000 blue-collar jobs in the state, according to the Western States Petroleum Assn.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.