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In California, you can drill for oil next to a home. Activists hope to change that

It’s hard for me to imagine living next door to fossil fuel extraction.

Yes, I wrote recently about being surprised to discover my apartment is a mile and a half from an active oil well. But for many Californians — especially those with black or brown skin, and especially in Los Angeles and Kern counties — oil and gas production is up close and personal. You look outside your window or drive to school and see pumpjacks methodically tilting forward and back, or flames shooting into the air when gas is flared, or lines of trucks carrying drilling equipment. You can smell the fumes.

For all of California’s pride in being an environmental leader, the state doesn’t require a buffer zone between fossil fuel production and homes, schools or hospitals. Many states less progressive than California mandate at least some minimal buffer to protect the health and safety of nearby communities. Even drilling-friendly North Dakota and Texas have “setback” regulations on the books, as UC Berkeley researchers noted in a recent report.

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A bill in Sacramento aimed to change that, requiring state regulators to establish a minimum setback distance for the first time. But a committee of lawmakers rejected the legislation in a 5-4 vote last week.

Activists were especially furious with Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat who voted against the bill and harshly criticized an environmental justice activist who had testified in its favor. Hertzberg later apologized to the activist, but that didn’t stop protesters from showing up outside his home on Monday morning, where they joined in song: “Which side are you on, Hertzberg? Which side are you on?”

The protests demonstrate that even with the defeat of Assembly Bill 345, the environmental justice movement that’s coalesced around setbacks isn’t going away.

Yesterday I spoke with Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles and co-chair of STAND-L.A., which opposes neighborhood drilling. She was still “a little pissed,” in her words, about lawmakers rejecting AB 345.

“At the state level and in every community where we’re working, we are more inspired than ever to keep going and to escalate, and to not let the pressure off any of these [elected officials],” Argüello told me.

Environmental justice advocates have been sounding the alarm about the dangers of living near drilling sites for years. But the campaign for setbacks has gained steamed as more scientific studies have attested to the risks.

In June, a UC Berkeley-led study found that pregnant women in rural California who live within 6 miles of oil and gas wells — much further than the half-mile buffer activists are seeking — were significantly more likely to give birth to babies with low birth weights. These children face a greater risk of infections, development delays and other health problems.

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In July, researchers from UCLA and the University of Southern California published a study examining the effects of flaring — the open combustion of gas at extraction sites — on pregnant women in the Eagle Ford shale drilling region of south Texas. They found that women living within 3 miles of 10 or more nightly flaring events were 50% more likely to give birth prematurely.

In a letter to state lawmakers this week calling for approval of AB 345, groups representing more than 600 doctors, nurses and health professionals cited the growing body of evidence on health dangers posed by fossil fuel production.

“We work our hardest to treat patients suffering from the downstream effects of oil and gas drilling — babies born prematurely, children and adults with asthma and respiratory disease, people with chronic migraines, and cancer patients. We are now seeing that it is also our patients who breathe polluted air every day who are suffering and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates,” the letter read.

Even with hope for statewide legislation temporarily extinguished, clean air and racial justice advocates see several places where they can advance their campaign.

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California’s oil and gas regulatory agency, known as CalGEM, is preparing to draft rules meant to protect the health of communities near drilling sites. The agency has already received 40,000 public comments, many of them urging state officials to adopt a 2,500-foot buffer zone, the number originally contemplated by AB 345 before the bill was watered down.

“We are very much looking forward to getting a sense of what CalGEM is going to do,” said Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. “Without a setback, we don’t think they’re going to make a huge difference in terms of inherent health risks with proximity to drilling.”

Idle oil well in Arvin, California
A pumpjack sits idle near homes in Arvin, California.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Local action in also an option.

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In Los Angeles, then-petroleum administrator Uduak-Joe Ntuk — who now leads CalGEM — produced a report for the City Council last summer recommending a 600-foot buffer zone around existing oil and gas wells and a 1,500-foot setback for new drilling.

Instead of taking action, the council asked Mike Feuer, the city attorney, to explore their legal authority to implement setbacks. He sent the council his report last month, but his office says the document is confidential.

Argüello characterized the series of reports as a delay tactic employed by politicians fearful of upsetting the oil industry. She said several City Council members — including Mike Bonin, Paul Koretz and Herb Wesson — have at times supported the cause, but no one has been willing to push a setback regulation over the finish line.

“It’s an abdication of their responsibility to protect Angelenos from oil drilling. It’s an abdication of their responsibility to act on climate while we have a chance,” Argüello said.

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Los Angeles County officials, meanwhile, are considering buffer zones in unincorporated areas, issuing a draft ordinance in April that recommends a 500-foot setback from residences. Three outreach meetings this month were postponed as the county planning department conducts additional analysis of potential setback distances, deputy director Bianca Siegl told me.

“It’s not a fast process, but it is important that we take the time to do this right,” Siegl said in an email.

It’s hard to know how close to oil and gas wells is too close.

Arvin, one of the very few California cities to adopt its own setback requirement, established a 300-foot buffer for new drilling, with the number increasing to 600 feet for sensitive sites such as parks, hospitals and schools. But the scientific literature indicates that people living much further away can suffer health consequences.

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The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that 890,000 Californians live within half a mile of an active oil or gas well, roughly the setback distance originally proposed in AB 345. The vast majority are residents of Los Angeles and Kern counties.

If we expand the analysis to include inactive wells, which can leak toxic fumes, the numbers are even bigger. A recent investigation from The Times and the Center for Public Integrity found that more than 2 million Californians live within half a mile of either an active well or an unplugged inactive well.

Again: This issue isn’t going away. Argüello said she can feel the frustration building within at-risk communities.

“It’s literally boiling up from the ground up as residents are starting to notice these patterns of disease,” she said. “It’s coming from many of us who have literally said basta this is enough.”

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Here’s what else is happening around the West:

TOP STORIES

It’s been 22 years since Poseidon Water first proposed to build a seawater desalination plant in Huntington Beach. But as the company seeks final approval to finally build its environmentally controversial water-supply facility, it’s still not clear who will actually buy the water, my colleague Bettina Boxall reports. The uncertainty stems from the high cost of desalinated water, which is drought-proof but also significantly more expensive than water from other sources, at least right now.

The biggest area in the Lower 48 states that has already warmed by 2 degrees Celsius is on Colorado’s Western Slope. That’s what a Washington Post analysis found, and it matters because the rapidly heating region is a critical spot for snowpack that feeds the Colorado River, the West’s primary water supply, as Juliet Eilperin reports. Two degrees Celsius of warming is the global limit that scientists say we must try to avoid; unfortunately, some parts of the world are already there.

It’s possible you’ve heard that Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California, is Joe Biden’s pick for vice presidential running mate. I’ll do my own deep dive on Harris’s climate credentials later. For now, read about the climate justice bill she introduced last week with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (story by Ilana Cohen at InsideClimate News) and the $10-trillion climate plan she unveiled last year while running for president (story by The Times’ Melanie Mason).

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THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Mo Jackson and the BIPOC Camping Kits team
Mo Jackson and the BIPOC Camping Kits team ship camping gear to people across the country on Aug. 1, 2020.
(Eric Thornburg)

Conservation groups and outdoor reaction companies have long catered to a predominantly white clientele. So I loved this story by The Times’ Chace Beech about an initiative in the Pacific Northwest to get camping kits to Black and Indigenous people who want to get outside but had previously felt camping was inaccessible to them. The initiative was launched by Mo Jackson, who was inspired by an outing in Idaho to start offering camping kits for free via Instagram.

Joe Biden came out against two controversial mining proposals. First he told the Arizona Republic’s Debra Utacia Krol that he opposes uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, which tribes and environmentalists fear the Trump administration is planning to expand. Then Biden announced his opposition to the Pebble Mine, a proposed gold and copper mine in the wilds of Alaska, as Alex DeMarban reports for the Anchorage Daily News. (The Times’ Richard Read wrote a great piece on Pebble last year.)

The National Park Service has been in a state of upheaval for pretty much the entirety of the Trump administration. The park service hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed director since President Obama was in office, and its latest acting director, David Vela, unexpectedly resigned last week, as Kurt Repanshek reports for National Parks Traveler. Meanwhile, crowds have been packing into Yellowstone, and the Trump administration is not requiring visitors to wear masks, per NPR’s Nathan Rott.

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POWER STRUGGLES

The contractors responsible for California’s bullet train failed at building a bridge. As someone who would very much like one day to hop on a fast train from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, I wish I could tell you high-speed rail construction is going swimmingly. Alas, my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has repeatedly documented that this is not the case. Here’s his latest story, about the layers of consultants and complex reporting lines that contributed to support cables failing on a massive bridge.

Sempra Energy thinks natural gas consumption will rise, not fall. The parent company of Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric — both of which have featured heavily in this newsletter — says it’s “quite bullish” on hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel that could help fight climate change, Utility Dive’s Kavya Balaraman reports. But the company’s CEO also expects California and the nation to burn even more natural gas for electricity generation in the coming years.

“At 42, I caved in and bought my first car. Here’s why.” The Times’ editorial page editor, Sewell Chan, wrote an illuminating first-person account of why, after moving to L.A. from New York and going car-free for nearly two years, he finally decided he needed a personal automobile. I sympathize with Sewell. I started taking the bus to work a few days a week shortly before the pandemic hit, but it still feels nearly impossible to traverse this sprawling urban agglomeration without a car.

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AROUND THE WEST

Drought conditions are expanding across the West. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor report shows yellow, orange and red splotches covering most of the map from the 100th Meridian westward, as The Times’ Paul Duginski reports. Los Angeles is one of the few spots not currently experiencing drought, but of course what happens in the rest of the region affects us too, because we get most of our drinking water from the Colorado River, the Owens Valley and the rivers of Northern California.

Capitol Reef National Park
Sunrise at the Temple of the Sun in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park.
(Dan Blackburn)

The Trump administration backed away from a plan to open tens of thousands of acres near Utah national parks to oil and gas drilling. Here’s the story from The Times’ Anna M. Phillips. Near the end of the piece, Anna notes that the Bush administration tried to do basically the same thing and was blocked by lawsuits. It’s a reminder that much of the environmental policy pursued under President Trump is similar to efforts by previous Republican administrations.

Wyoming’s rig count dropped to zero for only the second time since 1884, as COVID-19 and slumping oil prices continue to batter the industry. It doesn’t mean there was no oil and gas being produced in Wyoming, only that no new wells were being drilled. Still, the slowdown is a huge problem in a state whose economy is built almost entirely on oil and gas, highlighting the need for diversification, as Camille Erickson reports for the Casper Star-Tribune.

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What do you want to know?

When you think about California’s climate future, what comes to mind? What keeps you up at night, and what gives you hope or gets you excited? What do you want to understand, and what should I?

This newsletter is for you, to help you understand how we’re changing our world and what we can do about it, and I want to hear your questions, concerns and ideas. Email me or find me on Twitter.

ONE MORE THING

I hiked this weekend for the first time since the pandemic started, and I can’t tell you how good it felt to get back on the trail. I decided to check out the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, a park operated by the Mountains Conservation and Recreation Authority at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley.

It’s a beautiful place to spend a few hours, even with the presence of gas pipelines, an oil pipeline and transmission towers:

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I also learned that the preserve was only protected in 2003. For decades, private companies had attempted to develop the site, at one point earning approval from Ventura County. The history is a reminder that many of the parks we cherish today were targeted for development not so long ago, and that we shouldn’t take these places for granted.

I’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues.


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