Without set-back safety zones thousands become sick - with COVID-19 there’s an increased risk for essential farm workers

Op-ed by State Rep. Mark Cardenas

Some are stunned when they realize California is the third largest producer of crude oil in the United States, for the state has a reputation of being a leader fighting climate change. Many Californians pride themselves on their state’s leadership on issues of public health and the environment. A staggering new NRDC analysis of oil and gas development in California shows that approximately 5.4 million people of the state’s population live within a mile of one, or more, of more than 84,000 existing oil and gas wells.

More than a third, 1.8 million, people also live in areas most burdened by environmental pollution as identified by California EPA’s tool. These communities, highly vulnerable to additional pollution from oil and gas development, are primarily 69 percent Latinos/Hispanics, 10 percent African Americans and 11 percent Asian Americans. In total, people of color make up nearly 92 percent of the 1.8 million people living within a mile of oil and gas development and in communities already heavily burdened by pollution.

On top of that California requires no health and setbacks safety zones between homes, schools, childcare centers, hospitals and other facilities and oil and gas wells. None. Other oil producing states do. Even the largest producer, Texas, does.

“There are one million people residing within a five square mile radius of the Inglewood Oil Field, which sits atop the Newport Inglewood fault line. Disaster could strike at any time. Its infrastructure is nearly 100 years old. Within the past few years, there have been several leaks and spills. Then there are the air contaminants that are responsible for countless respiratory conditions. We have to protect our people, not the fossil fuel industry,” said Meghan Sahli-Wells former Culver City Mayor, and current Councilmember. “I’m proud to serve as Co-Chair of Elected Officials to Protect California, where more than 310 of us signed a letter asking the governor to take action to halt permitting, and phase out fossil fuel production once and for all.” 

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. 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.

The science is clear. 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.

A 2019 review commissioned by the city of Los Angeles states that the majority of relevant peer-reviewed studies have found that close proximity to oil and gas production is associated with exposure to high concentrations of dangerous air pollutants. “The development of oil and gas immediately adjacent to places where people live, work and play poses hazards and risks to public health . . . some minimum distance from sensitive receptors should be considered,” wrote the study’s authors, Seth B.C. Shonkoff and Lee Ann L. Hill with Oakland-based nonprofit PSE Healthy Energy.

“In our letter to Governor Newsom we also asked him to start protecting people now with an instantaneous 2,500 foot setback, or safe zone, from oil and wells dangerously close to schools, homes, and businesses,” added Councilmember Meghan Sahli-Wells, Elected Officials to Protect California Co-Chair. “This recklessness with people’s lives has to end. We need the Governor to step forward and lead on this issue. We have to value people’s lives, not corporation profits. AB 345 would have had a chance to pass if he’d come out to publicly support it.”

Californian Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi’s bill, AB 345, would have given California’s Natural Resources Agency until July of 2022 to adopt public health and safety regulations covering nearby oil and gas extraction areas. “My AB 345, a top priority environmental justice bill, passed the Assembly,” tweeted Assemblyman Muratsuchi when the bill’s 42-30 victory vote happened on January 27, 2020. “This bill will establish oil drilling buffer zones to protect children and families living near oil extraction sites.”

But the State Senate was lobbied incessantly by the oil and gas industry. The Western States Petroleum Association, the most powerful corporate lobbying group in California, strongly opposed AB 345.

As amended the proposed legislation would require the establishment of an environmental justice program at the California Natural Resources Agency, and requires the Geologic Energy Management Division of the Department of Conservation to adopt regulations by July 1, 2022, to “protect public health and safety near oil and gas extraction facilities.” Those regulations will include safety requirements and the establishment of a minimum setback distance between oil and gas activities and sensitive receptors, as provided, based on health, scientific, and other data. Prior to adopting the regulations, the department has to consult with environmental, environmental justice, public health advocates, public health authorities, and other experts, as specified. The bill states the Department shall “consider a setback distance of 2,500 feet from schools, playgrounds, and public facilities where children are present.” The bill was watered down from “mandatory” to “considered.”

“My constituents are the ones who breathe the air and drink the water. Many work hard in the fields unaware of the toxins they’re breathing in. I was a farm worker when I first came to America. I suffered from headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds. A friend had a miscarriage. Our lives matter,” said Felipe Perez, Fresno City Councilmember and Steering Committee Member of Elected Officials to Protect California. “We need the governor to lead. He has the power to help bills pass. In the time of COVID-19 my people are worried about their increased risk of infection simply because their zip code has put them at greater risk. This is a health emergency. These are essential workers. Newsom needs to take action. Why hasn’t he?”

Oil production sites emit hydrogen sulfide and known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors such as benzene and formaldehyde.

“Even if AB 345 doesn’t pass. Governor Newsom has the power of the executive order. I know there would be legal action against any such order, but leading means standing up for the people you represent, all the people, not corporations,” concluded Felipe Perez, Fresno City Councilmember and Steering Committee Member of Elected Officials to Protect California.

According to a recent poll 79 percent of Californians support the creation of a health and safety buffer zone between communities and oil extraction.

“There currently is no binding commitment from the Newsom Administration to create any kind of health and safety buffer zone. Protecting the well-being of low-income, Black, and brown community members with a legislatively-mandated setback is the kind of emergency action that California needs to counter the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis,” said Councilmember Elect Katie Valenzuela, Steering Committee Member of Elected Officials to Protect California. and CEJA Action Political and Policy Director.

The Senate hearing was heated. Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg verbally attacked Valenzuela about the bill. He accused Valenzuela of misleading community groups, and of failing to “do the homework” or “read the bill.”

“I was there to testify as a primary support witness. As a resident of Oildale, CA, I was sent to the hospital too many times. By insulting my intelligence, my intentions, and my integrity he also insulted the broad coalition of nonprofit advocacy and community groups who have worked tirelessly to pass AB 345 into law,” said Councilmember Elect Katie Valenzuela, Steering Committee Member of Elected Officials to Protect California. and CEJA Action Political and Policy Director.

The United Domestic Workers along with more than 270 environmental justice, public health, education, political, and other labor organizations signed on as supporters of AB 345.

“Senator Hertzberg addressed me with language that is all too reminiscent of the disregard and devaluing of lives of people of color that perpetuates environmental injustices,” said Councilmember Elect Katie Valenzuela, Steering Committee Member of Elected Officials to Protect California. and CEJA Action Political and Policy Director. “The Majority Leader doesn’t seem to think that there is a problem, despite ample scientific evidence and community testimony to the contrary. So I’ve invited him to join me on a tour of oil fields in Kern County where I grew up so he can see what is happening for himself – at his earliest convenience.”

In the end, Senator Hertzberg, Senator Hueso, Senator Caballero joined Republicans to oppose the bill. Senator Henry Stern, Senator Monning, Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, and Senator Allen voted in support of AB 345. Senator Stern, committee chair, said the bill should be given urgent priority because it would help protect the health and safety of essential workers who provide food for the nation. Senator Jackson pointed to the important role the Legislature should play in helping guide Administration activities like the proposed rulemaking.

Senate Majority Leader Hertzberg has yet to publicly apologize.

Many elected officials had high hopes that Newsom wouldn’t be two faced as his predecessor Jerry Brown was, but now they question his intentions.

Newsom’s administration has now granted a total of 48 fracking permits since the moratorium ended in April. Kern County received the bulk and more could be issued at any time. Being the center of California’s oil industry, Kern County already has some of the poorest air quality in the nation. It also has large communities of color, many of whom work in the fields. Kern County produces over 80 percent of the total national carrot crop. Potatoes, lettuce, garlic, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, and watermelons are also grown here with invisible toxins covering the fields, carried on the winds.

The number of oil permits the Newsom administration has issued since he took office in January 2019 now totals 7,474 according to a report by FracTracker. 1,400 new oil and gas well permits issued so far this year.

“Now is the moment to propel our state forward and ensure the future our children deserve. Fracking has no future and a horrific past generating serious health problems, especially for minority communities,” said San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon, Elected Officials to Protect California Steering Committee Member. “I believe Governor Newson does want to protect the health and wellbeing of all Californians. I know we are in an emergency and COVID-19 is his priority. However, climate change is an emergency too and anything that contributes to it should stop. Now more than ever, we need to protect the health and safety of all our people — especially our essential farm workers. Issuing a decree for a 2,500-foot setback for all oil and gas wells is something he should and could do immediately. It’s time we found out where our governor really stands.”

Nationally, over 410 elected officials have signed the Elected Officials to Protect America’s National Climate Justice Sign-on Letter demanding a just transition. Since the Brown Administration, EOPCA has pushed for transparency, accountability, and an energy regime which protects public health

Elected Officials to Protect California is a program of Elected Officials to Protect America.

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.

April 1, 2020


Contact: Alexander Cornell du Houx, Elected Officials to Protect America Cell: 207.319.4511