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California lawmakers OK buffer zones between new oil wells and homes, schools

Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom tours an area of Wilmington in October where pump jacks are close to homes.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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After years of failed attempts to impose health and safety buffer zones around new oil and gas wells in California, state lawmakers on Wednesday sent a bill to the governor that would require setbacks between those production sites and residential neighborhoods and other sensitive areas.

Senate Bill 1137 is a major part of a package of climate legislation that Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged to bolster the state’s environmental policies.

“It’s a long-standing and glaring example of environmental racism,” said state Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), who introduced the bill. “Research shows, of course, that people of color, Black, brown and Indigenous people suffer the greatest consequences of this toxic proximity and these are the same communities that have oil production in their backyards.”

The legislation prohibits the California Geologic Energy Management Division from approving a new oil well within 3,200 feet of a “sensitive receptor,” defined as a residence, education resource, community resource, healthcare facility, dormitory or any building open to the public.

Similar efforts have failed to gain traction in the state Legislature in the past, succumbing to tough lobbying opposition from the petroleum industry and trade unions. Newsom largely remained on the sidelines during those earlier legislative battles while he pushed his administration to adopt setbacks through state regulations.

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The governor waded into the fight this year, however, after the Western States Petroleum Assn. ran ads in Florida criticizing Newsom’s climate policies. The ads were aired after Newsom ran his own television spots in Florida calling out the state’s restrictive policies on abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Opponents argued that the bill would raise already sky-high gas prices and criticized the rushed nature in which the legislation was approved during floor debates in the Legislature.

“This bill is a setback for desperately needed energy production in California,” Assemblymember Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) said on the Assembly floor. “This bill is a setback for Californians struggling to afford to live and work in California. This bill is a setback to the entire California economy.”

Democratic lawmakers said SB 1137 will only block oil companies from building new wells, or wells that are reworked, near the restricted areas and that existing wells can continue to operate. Companies with existing oil and gas wells within the health and safety buffers would be required to monitor emissions, control dust and limit nighttime noise and light.

Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) said he wished the legislation went further to protect more than 3 million Californians, largely in low-income communities of color, who reside within 3,200 feet of existing oil wells and experience higher rates of asthma and heart attacks and have shorter life expectancies.

“All this bill says is you can’t put another one in the proximity of our teachers, of our students, our school employees, our nurses, our hospitals, our nursing homes, our children and our grandmothers,” Bryan said.

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Rolling Hills Estates) said he was ashamed in 2019 when his bill to create buffer zones died while states such as Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas had already adopted oil drilling setbacks.

“It is way past time that we stand up to the powerful special interests that are fighting this bill to protect our most vulnerable communities,” he said during the floor debate Tuesday in the Assembly.

Environmental justice groups lauded the outcome.

“This is a victory for every single family and every single frontline community in California that has been fighting Big Oil’s drilling in our backyards for decades and pushing for setbacks for years,” Kobi Naseck of Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods said in a statement.

Lawmakers passed several other bills in the climate package before adjourning for the year on Wednesday.

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The Legislature already sent the governor SB 1020, which would set interim targets along the way to an existing state goal to generate 100% of retail electricity from renewable energy and zero-carbon resources by 2045. The bill would require the state to reach 90% by 2035 and 95% by 2040.

Assembly Bill 1279 to establish a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2045 also passed Wednesday. Lawmakers approved several different bills related to carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

One of the governor’s climate priorities on greenhouse gases, AB 2133, failed in the Assembly. The legislation would have set a target of reducing emissions by 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, expanding beyond the current goal of 40% over the same time.

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