California Oil Well Drilling Comes to a Halt After Drill Permit Stall

California Oil Well Drilling Comes to a Halt After Drill Permit Stall
Pump jacks and wells are seen in an oil field on the Monterey Shale formation where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is used to extract gas and oil near McKittrick, Calif., on March 23, 2014. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Elizabeth Dowell

According to state data, California’s oil well drilling came to a halt as the state stalls on granting new drilling permits.

The state’s Geologic Energy Management Division, known as CalGEM, has approved seven new active well permits in 2023. That compares with the more than 200 it had issued last year.

The stalled approvals represent the latest tension between California’s bold environmental ambitions and its major oil and gas producer and consumer role.

Since Gavin Newsom became governor in 2019, new drilling permits have steadily declined, but the current approval rate represents a sudden and dramatic drop.

“It’s just fallen off the cliff,” Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), said in an interview. He said the industry has more than 1,400 permit applications for new wells awaiting CalGEM approval, half of which are more than a year old.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks in the rotunda of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, on March 28, 2023. (Courtesy of the Office of Governor Gavin Newsom)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks in the rotunda of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, on March 28, 2023. (Courtesy of the Office of Governor Gavin Newsom)

In 2021 Gov. Gavin Newsom took action to phase out oil drilling in the state by 2045.“The climate crisis is real, and we continue to see the signs every day,” Newsom said in a statement. “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.”

Last year, California also passed a law banning oil and gas drilling within 3,200 feet of structures, including homes, schools, and hospitals. But CIPA has blocked the implementation of that law by qualifying a referendum to overturn it for the November 2024 ballot.

The approved new wells include one for Sentinel Peak Resources in San Luis Obispo County and five for E&B Natural Resources Management in Kern County.

In an apparent concession to the oil and gas industry, approvals to improve or repair established wells are up nearly 50 percent to 1,650 in the first half of this year, according to an analysis of the CalGEM data by environmental group FracTracker Alliance that was provided to Reuters by the consumer advocacy nonprofit Consumer Watchdog.

Conservation Activists Speak Out

Last Month, conservation organizations filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), seeking to halt the unlawful drilling of multiple oil and gas wells in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
“We have done everything we can to warn the Biden administration of the myriad environmental and socio-economic risks associated with more drilling in Kern County,”  Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth, said in a statement. “We were deeply disappointed to see these permits granted, and the only option we have left is this lawsuit. It is our hope that the Court sees the clear violations of federal law and pumps the brakes before irreversible damage occurs.”

Consumer Watchdog criticized those approvals as a threat to public health because they extend the lives of low- and non-producing wells, which the group argues would likely have been plugged had the setback law not been paused.

“The state is simply helping the oil industry cut costs by issuing permits to tinker with unproductive wells rather than making them plug and remediate those wells that endanger the public and environment by emitting toxic compounds,” said Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog.

In June, over 100 scientists sent a letter to Gov. Newsom urging him to stop new oil and gas permit approvals in and near neighborhoods.

“Gov. Newsom has the power to end the neighborhood oil drilling that is poisoning communities of color first and worst,” said Aradhna Tripati, Ph.D., a professor at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We need him to act now to stop drilling near where people live, work, and play to protect Californians on the frontlines of deadly fossil fuel pollution,” the letter stated.

California oil and gas production will earn about $6.3 billion in future profits over the remaining operations, according to a report published by Dwayne Purvis, a Texas-based petroleum reservoir engineer who analyzed profits and cleanup costs for the report.

“This major issue has sneaked up on us,” Mr. Purvis said in the report. “Policymakers haven’t recognized it. The industry hasn’t recognized it, or, if they have, they haven’t talked about it and acted on it.”

Elizabeth is a SoCal based reporter covering issues in Los Angeles and throughout the state for The Epoch Times. She is passionate about creating truthful and accurate stories for readers to connect with. When she’s not reporting, she enjoys writing poetry, playing basketball, embarking on new adventures and spending quality time with her family and friends.
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