Fracking Ban a Start, But Broader Actions Needed to Protect Communities, Experts Say

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A halt on permit approvals for hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in California has drawn widespread praise from environmental activists, but experts say much broader policies are needed to protect the health of communities located near oil fields.

Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped approval of new fracking and high-pressure steam injection operations in November pending reviews to ensure these oil-drilling techniques can be performed safely, without harming public health and the environment. The governor said the moratoriums are part of his administration’s efforts to phase out the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Community activists in Kern County, a major fracking and oil-extraction hub, praised the decision. People living near oil drilling sites in the region, who are largely low-income Latinos, frequently complain of respiratory problems, said Juan Flores, an organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment who works in Kern County. Asthma rates in the county are among the highest in the state.

When oil companies frack, which involves injecting liquids at high pressure into the ground to access oil, many nearby residents have to keep their families indoors, and people complain of headaches and nosebleeds, Flores said.

“It’s just annoying to have the industry literally have you kidnapped within your own house,” he said. “You’re not able to walk outside, not even into your backyard because it smells so bad.”

Local activists have been waiting for years for the state to impose stricter regulations on oil and gas extraction, Flores said. Gov. Newsom appears to be taking action where his predecessor did not, giving “a lot of hope to community members,” he said.

But the moratoriums are just a first step, Flores said. To truly safeguard the health of residents—particularly children—living near oil operations, the state needs to impose a buffer zone of at least 2,500 feet between oil extractors and residential areas, he said.

The Newsom administration has said it plans to study the idea of implementing buffer zones, along with other options for strengthening oil and gas industry regulations.

Seth Shonkoff, executive director of the Oakland-based research institute Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, doubted the moratoriums would have widespread impact on public health and the environment. The hydraulic fracturing and high-pressure steam operations covered by the ban account for only about 20 percent of oil and gas production in California, and are largely based in areas where few people live, he said.

What’s more, the moratorium only covers new permits, which means existing oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing and steam will be allowed to continue. 

Shonkoff said the governor will need to do a lot more to meet the state’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045, and to have a real impact on improving public health.

Research increasingly shows negative health impacts associated with oil and gas extraction of all types, not just fracking, Shonkoff said. Most of these studies have been conducted in other states. Studies have tied oil extraction to degradation of air and water quality, and to an increase in low birth-weight babies and birth defects among children born to mothers who live in close proximity to oil and gas facilities, he said.

“The vast majority of studies have found statistically significant associations between oil and gas development and human health impacts,” Shonkoff said.

If Newsom wants to prioritize “human health and equity, it would seem prudent to find ways to start systematically reducing the impacts of oil and gas development,” he said.

Meanwhile, California Sen. Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, said the moratorium on steam-injected oil drilling would harm Kern County’s oil industry without reducing the state’s use of oil.

“California’s thirst for oil will not reduce a single barrel by this policy, but as a result we will import more foreign oil and export California’s cash,” she said in a statement.

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