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Environmentalists plan lawsuit challenging Newsom over oil and gas drilling permits

The Inglewood Oil Field is home to nearly 1,000 wells
The Inglewood Oil Field is home to nearly 1,000 wells.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A national environmental organization on Monday threatened to sue Gov. Gavin Newsom to halt all new permits for gas and oil wells in the state, saying the governor has failed to protect Californians and the environment from hazards and pollutants released by the state’s billion-dollar petroleum industry.

In a letter sent to Newsom on Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity accused his administration of being friendly to California’s oil industry and issuing new permits without proper environmental reviews. The organization plans to take legal action unless the Democratic governor “promptly direct[s] your regulators to halt permitting.”

“We urge you to direct your regulators to immediately stop issuing the illegal permits, hold the oil industry accountable for its damage and stop allowing oil companies to profit from their oil spills,” attorneys Kassie Siegel and Hollin Kretzmann told Newsom in the letter.

An official with the state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees that agency that regulates oils and gas wells — California Geologic Energy Management Division, known as CalGEM — disputed the assertion that any permits were issued improperly, saying the state has abided by all laws and court decisions regulating the process.

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“CalGEM is not illegally issuing permits or violating CEQA. It follows all state laws and regulations in approving permits,” department spokeswoman Lisa Lien-Mager said in an email Monday. “This administration has strengthened oversight, imposed more rigorous standards for permit review and institutionalized independent scientific and technical review of its processes. California standards exceed those of any other state in the country.”

Newsom during his first year in office vowed to protect Californians against the hazards of oil and gas production, but environmental groups have grown increasingly frustrated with what they consider a lack of consequential action.

Siegel and other environmental advocates also criticized Newsom for allowing the California Geologic Energy Management Division, known as CalGEM, to issue close to 50 new hydraulic fracturing permits to Chevron and Aera Energy, a partnership of Shell Oil and ExxonMobil, since April.

The permits were issued after a November announcement by Newsom that he would temporarily block new hydraulic fracturing permits until those projects could be reviewed by an independent panel of scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

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State Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk said in August that the permits that were granted underwent independent environmental review, and that six permits had been denied and more permits were still pending review by the panel.

Environmental groups, however, called the review inadequate. They also noted that adverse health impacts from the oil industry were disproportionally felt in Black and Latino communities.

A recent study by researchers at UC Berkeley, published by the National Institutes of Health, found that living near oil and gas wells caused significant adverse health effects to pregnant mothers and newborn babies.

“We have waited and waited and waited. They’ve said they’re going to take action, they’ve asked people to be patient. But it seems that what they’ve done with that time is come up with new ways to serve the oil industry,” Siegel said Monday. “When we see a flood of illegal permits continued despite the damage, it’s time to get tough.”

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The letter to Newsom also cited a recent story by the Desert Sun and ProPublica showing that oil companies in California have made millions by selling the oil extracted from their own spills.

Legislation to put in place minimum setback distances between the wells and residential areas, along with public places such as schools and playgrounds, failed to pass in the state Senate — in large part because of opposition from the petroleum industry and trade unions, according to the bill’s author, Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Rolling Hills Estates).

Muratsuchi’s proposal would have required the state Department of Conservation to adopt mandatory setbacks — and, specifically, to at least consider setbacks of 2,500 feet from schools, playgrounds and other facilities where children are present.

The Newsom administration, however, is currently considering new regulations that could include those setbacks. Officials with the Department of Conservation have been holding public hearings in person and online throughout the year on proposed public health and safety protections for communities near oil and gas operations.

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Lien-Mager said the drafting of the regulations to protect public health are being “guided by science, data and sound engineering practices.”

On Wednesday, Newsom called for a ban on fracking in a news conference at which he unveiled a goal to require all new car sales to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035, but again frustrated some environment groups who faulted him for not doing more to restrict fossil fuel production.


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