Elected Officials to Protect America asks Governor Newsom to use executive order and establish safety setbacks from oil & gas wells

Across America people who live near oil and gas wells get sick, they deserve 2,500-foot safety/health setback zones

Parents naturally want the best health outcomes for their children. Yet too many families live next to oil and gas wells across the country. They feel helpless trying to protect their children from the hidden pollutants that are released into the air and soil night and day. They need help.

The production of fossil fuels has affected health outcomes of citizens across the country for decades, causing cancer in children and adults, asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and premature and/or low birth weights. Scientific knowledge, from more than two dozen peer-reviewed studies that were published over the last 20 years, all conclude that living near oil and gas wells risks potentially serious health consequences. Petroleum-related air toxins like benzene, toluene, formaldehyde and xylene are the culprits. 

Approximately 17.6 million people live within one mile of an oil or gas well nationally. Out of that around 12 million reside within a half-mile, which intensifies the negative health impacts. 

It is imperative that states begin to require safety setback zones between where people live and fossil fuel wells.

In accordance with scientific evidence, Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA) actively promotes a 2,500-foot setback zone between homes, schools, hospitals, and other common gathering places and oil and gas wells to make sure this health safeguard becomes law. Over 315 EOPA/California elected officials signed a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom urging action on these setbacks, and other measures.

“There currently is no binding commitment from the Newsom Administration to create any kind of health and safety buffer zone. Thescience is clear — people are dying. We have to protect the health and well-being of communities living next to oil and gas wells. The governor needs to issue an executive order for setbacks of 2,500 feet to address this health emergency,” said Sacramento Councilmember-elect Katie Valenzuela, Steering Committee Member of Elected Officials to America/California.  

According to the California Council on Science and Technology, exposure to toxic air contaminants and other pollution caused by oil and gas wells is a significant threat to public health. Even though the majority of studies indicate that  2,500-foot setback buffer zones around oil and gas wells is crucial for the health and wellbeing of residents, there are only a handful of local governments who have these regulations. No state in the nation does.                            

The danger of living near oil and gas facilities is universal, but the efforts to protect people from these oil and gas wells are not. While nearly every state approaches the issue differently based on their economy, political priorities, and residents, none of them are doing enough. The most progressive setback state law is in Colorado. 

“Safety rails ensure children and adults don’t have hazardous falls. Train crossing signals ensure cars stop, so we don’t get hit. We have laws to protect our citizens from visible dangers. It’s time we safeguard against hidden threats. Airborne toxins can’t be seen but can be measured, and have been. Creating a 2,500-foot setback zone from an oil or gas well will ensure the public isn’t exposed to as many deadly toxins. States need to pass legislation for this overdue safety measure,” said Steve Child, Pitkin County, Colorado County Commissioner, Army veteran Specialist 5. “I’m proud to see Colorado is leading the way.”

The state’s oil and gas conservation commission voted on a 2,000-foot setback from the center of an oil and gas well in September and the measure will be finalized in November. This comes following the Colorado Senate’s Bill 19-181 which changed the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) from an organization that advocated for oil and gas development to one who is responsible for regulating oil and gas development and production to protects public health, safety and welfare, the environment, and wildlife; an indication of the country’s growing concern about the environment and the climate crisis. 

“Oil and gas development have had damaging effects on the health and safety of Coloradans for far too long. I am heartened to know that since the passage of SB19-181, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) and the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) have expanded their rulemaking in favor of the health and safety of Coloradans as well as have given communities more control beyond minimum state requirements. I will continue to monitor the COGCC’s and AQCC’s efforts and stand ready to continue these efforts to protect our environment and public health,” said Colorado State Representative-elect Tracey Bernett.

While various local governments in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico require setbacks ranging from 467 feet to 1,500 feet, none are adequate to truly protect public health. 

Approximately 5.4 million people (14 percent of the state’s population) live within half a mile of an oil or gas well.  Nearly 8,500 active California oil and gas wells are located within 2,500 feet of homes, schools, and hospitals, disproportionately impacting people of color and economically disadvantaged communities. Despite these substantial numbers, across the state the average setback distances are often only a few hundred feet, leaving hundreds of thousands still in the danger realm. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, between 2011 and 2018, of the more than 21,000 new oil and gas wells permitted by the state, 76 percent are located in communities with above-average poverty rates for California, and 67 percent are located in communities of color.

Kern River Oil Field, in the San Joaquin Valley, is one of the densest oil developments in the United States, with over 9,000 oil wells clustered in just several square miles. Sacramento Councilmember-elect Katie Valenzuela, Steering Committee Member of Elected Officials to Protect America/California was raised in the area.

“I grew up struggling to breathe because we were surrounded by oil fields. We cannot call California a leader on climate if we fail to protect communities of color and low income that have been ignored for too long. However, despite overwhelming testimonies from frontline communities members and ample scientific evidence, members of the Senate Natural Resources & Water Committee sided with oil industry lobbyists to stop a bill that would have created setbacks in California,” said Sacramento Councilmember-elect Katie Valenzuela, Steering Committee Member of Elected Officials to Protect America/California. “The logical next step is for the governor to issue an executive order. People’s lives are at stake, we can’t wait.”

Californians in urban centers are at greater risk than compared to communities in many other states. In the LA area, the amount of wells and the population density around them is higher, meaning more people breathe in more toxic air emissions.Add to this the fact that in California the lion share of oil production happens in low income communities and communities of color—communities that already disproportionately suffer from systemic racism and industrial pollution. An increased COVID-19 risk accompanies pollution from oil production.

The California Council on Science and Technology’s (CCST) 2015 studyfound that “the most significant exposures to toxic air contaminants” occur within a half-mile (2,640 feet) of well operations, and recommended consideration of setbacks. 

In 2019, the California Department of Conservation announced that it was commencing a broad regulatory reform effort—and zeroed in specifically on the issue of setbacks. A bill in the state assembly proposed 2,500 foot setbacks but ultimately failed to get out of committee last summer. Governor Newsom announced, in an executive order, that setbacks will continue to be researched, despite CCST’s previous definitive study. Newsom also gave no guarantees as to when they might become law. 

Some local elected officials in California have been fighting for setbacks. In late August, Ventura County adopted a 2,500-foot setback between oil and gas wells and homes and schools. More than 8,500 people in Ventura County live within 2,500 feet of an active oil or gas well, about 60 percent of them Latino, according to an analysis by the FracTracker Alliance.

“Ventura County Supervisors have taken important steps to protect public health by enacting one of the nation’s most strongest and comprehensive plans to protect our communities from the dangers of oil and gas pollution,” said Ventura County Supervisor-elect and current  Oxnard Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Ramirez, Esq, Elected Officials to Protect America/California Steering Committee Member. “If we can do it here, after long discussions and input from all concerned stakeholders, we believe that Governor Newsom can do this too for our state of California.  In light of the failure of the State legislature to enact setbacks earlier this year, I believe his best course of action is to issue an executive order. The Governor believes in science and his own agency recommends setbacks. Clearly, it’s time for action.”

Los Angeles County officials are currently considering a similar rule to Ventura’s that will be voted on later this year. These examples prove that when the state fails, local governments can step up to protect citizens.

While in many western states the practice of creating setbacks from oil and gas wells is primarily a local issue, across the country in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York the story is different. In this region a lot of fossil fuel production is dominated by the underlying Marcellus Shale, the largest natural gas field in the United States and one of the largest in the world.

In Pennsylvania over 1.5 million people live within a half mile of a fossil fuel well. Statewide the mandatory minimum for the distance between a standard oil or gas well and a building or water well is 200 feet. For hydraulic fracturing wells the setback requirement is 500 feet. Some local governments are implementing more stringent requirements, such as South Fayette Township which has a minimum setback of 1,700 feet on residential areas and 2,500 feet from schools and hospitals. After a recent Pennsylvania grand jury report investigated the hydraulic fracturing industry and the state’s treatment towards these businesses, the grand jury made their recommendation to increase the setback for hydraulic fracking wells to 2,500 feet. Nothing has happened yet.

In neighboring New York state, fewer than 300,000 people live within a half mile of an oil or gas facility or well, thanks in large part to the state’s more stringent processes. In New York there is no standard setback for conventional oil and gas wells as there are variations based on the well type and each well needs to go under an environmental review before permits are given. Five years ago Governor Cuomo banned fracking through executive order. Elected Officials to Protect America/New York took an active part to make that happen. This year the state legislature codified it.

In West Virginia nearly a quarter of the population lives within half a mile of an oil or gas facility and half of the population lives within a mile of one. Currently there is a 200-foot setback requirement for conventional wells and 625-foot setback from the center of a fracking drill pad, which allows actual drill pads to be much closer than 625 feet. Efforts to change this at a state level from 2017 to 2019 resulted in failure. 

Nearly everywhere in the country setbacks from oil and gas wells are not substantial to protect public health. 

“For the majority who live next to an oil or gas well, moving isn’t an option. The anxiety of parents worrying about their child’s asthma, nosebleeds, and the possibility of cancer needs to be relieved. State governments can and should take action,” said Steve Child, Pitkin County, Colorado County Commissioner, Army veteran Specialist 5. “We, as elected officials, must protect the people we represent. If a gubernatorial executive order is not an option, I urge other state governments to enact setback laws, equal to, if not greater than, what we’ve done in Colorado. It’s the right thing to do.”

Elected Officials to Protect America/California is a project of EOPA.

The mission of EOPA: To create a safe, prosperous, and healthy planet, we empower leadership from elected officials and civic leaders to protect our environment, and fight the climate crisis. As current and former elected officials who care deeply about protecting our planet and people from the dangers of climate change, EOPA educates through value-based storytelling, trains lawmakers, and connects elected officials to inspire strong environmental policy. Lawmakers who are veterans and elected officials lead our mission.

August 12, 2020


Contact: Alexander Cornell du Houx, President of Elected Officials to Protect California Cell: 207.319.4511