In response to recent federal plans to increase oil and gas production in California, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill prohibiting new oil infrastructure leases on state lands in October, citing public health justification. Then late November Newsom halted all new state approvals of hydraulic fracking permits pending scientific review.
By Katie Gu, MS Bioengineering
On the heels of recent efforts by the Trump administration to auction federal land to drilling by oil and gas developers, Governor Gavin Newsom has taken action to regulate new hydraulic fracking and drilling on California state lands.
In Oct 2019, Newsom signed bill AB 432 into state law, thus prohibiting the issuance of new oil infrastructure leases on California state lands and requiring that any new oil and gas developments be located “at least 2,500 feet from a residence, school, childcare facility, playground, hospital, or health clinic.” A month later, Newsom halted approvals of new fracking projects in California until project permits are reviewed by an independent panel of scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Newsom’s increased scrutiny of fracking activities comes not a moment too soon, as the Trump administration’s policies have already impacted California’s lands. In May of this year, the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management proposed a resource management plan amendment to open 725,500 acres of federal land along California’s Central Coast (11 counties total) to oil and gas lease sales, as well as 683,100 acres of federal mineral estate to oil and gas drilling. On Oct. 4, the plans were approved, ending a five-year moratorium on leasing federal land in California to oil and gas developers.
Timeline of fracking legislations impacting California’s lands
The increased fracking and drilling resulting from the Bureau of Land Management’s plan poses significant public health and environmental risks in the state. Clare Lakewood, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that California’s Central Valley already “has some of the worst air quality in the nation, and we know fracking and drilling make air quality worse.” Indeed, data from a 2017 Science Advances article published by Princeton University researchers Janet Currie, Michael Greenstone, and Katherine Meckel show that a greater incidence of “low-birth weight babies as well as significant declines in average birth weight and in several other measures of infant health” demonstrate the negative health impacts resulting from in utero exposure within one kilometer of fracking sites. The authors estimate that around “29,000 of nearly 4 million annual U.S. births occur within 1 km of an active fracking site and that these births therefore may be at higher risk of poor birth outcomes.”
Similar evidence was observed in a 2019 Environmental Science and Pollution Research study on the impact of shale gas and oil fracking wells on infant health at birth in Oklahoma. Authors Nicholas Apergis, Tasawar Hayat, and Tareq Saeed demonstrate a “significant impact of fracking on infants’ health indicators” and found a substantial role of fracking on the drinking water quality of surrounding communities.
Researchers find a greater incidence of low-birth weight babies as well as significant declines in average birth weight and in several other measures of infant health resulting from in utero exposure within one kilometer of fracking sites.
In addition to public health concerns associated with fracking, recent economic analyses indicate that, without financial assistance, fossil-fuel energy generation is on average more expensive than onshore wind and photovoltaic power options (see this 2018 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA): “Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2018”).
WoodMac analysis of renewable power generation cost trends, excluding government subsidies. Image from Axios Visuals.
California’s legislative actions, taken in response to the expansion of fracking activities spurred by the Bureau of Land Management’s new federal land policies, point not only to the need for policymakers to weigh significant public and environmental health risks associated with oil and gas production, but also towards the significant opportunity for individuals to advocate for increased public awareness and action.
To help combat these risks, advocate for regulatory and monitoring policies that protect public health and California land against increased fracking activities. Local efforts supporting such policies include the Food & Water Watch’s California team, currently working to ban fracking in specific counties, with wins thus far in Alameda, Butte, San Benito, and Santa Cruz counties, as well as the city of Berkeley Hills. Efforts remain underway by the team to “work with community groups to end drilling in South Los Angeles and other urban areas to safeguard residents from the serious health impacts affecting those communities.”
While the newest efforts by the Newsom administration combat new fracking projects on California state land, these policies do not stop BLM’s plans to drill on federal land in the state. To advocate for public health of residents as fracking increases on California’s federal lands, Californians Against Fracking is a statewide coalition whose “California Toxic Protection Pledge” aims to protect public health interests against fracking by 1) pushing for a “human health buffer from all oil and gas development in areas where people live, work and play”; 2) stopping the most dangerous forms of oil production (e.g. fracking, steam injection, offshore drilling) to protect air quality, food supply, and clean groundwater supplies; 3) ensuring safe drinking water sources; and 4) stopping toxic chemicals of oil field wastewater from entering crop irrigation.
Katie Gu studied Biology and English as an undergraduate (’18) and completed a master’s degree in Bioengineering (’19) at Stanford. She is currently working at Genentech, and is passionate about science communication and health policy.