Public health expert Kyle Ferrar spent seven straight days in August finding toxic emissions coming from neighborhood oil and gas sites, a job he wished California regulators would do. His work lent urgency to legislators’ push to succeed where regulators failed.
On Wednesday, Ferrar got his wish. California lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting new wells within 3,200 feet of residences, schools, nursing homes and other so-called “sensitive receptors,” where people could be harmed by oil and gas emissions. Senate Bill 1137 now awaits the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who last month urged legislators to approve the measure as part of a major climate package before adjourning Wednesday. S.B. 1137 also requires monitoring and repairing leaks of the sort Ferrar has spent years documenting.
Last month Ferrar, western program coordinator for the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, found scores of leaks at nearly 100 sites, using state-of-the art imaging technology. His footage provides dramatic evidence that neighborhood oil and gas operations are emitting toxic gases that cause serious public health consequences and endanger lives.
“Oil and gas companies should not be able to drill next to daycares in California. It’s just that simple,” said Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Three years ago Gov. Newsom directed the Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, to strengthen health and safety protections for communities near oil and gas facilities. Living near these sites causes numerous health problems, as Inside Climate News recently reported, including fatigue, anemia, headaches, cancer and respiratory and heart problems.
Frustrated by oil and gas regulators’ delays, California Democrats representing Los Angeles-area districts where backyard oil wells are common stepped in to fill the gap.
Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), who led the push to pass the measure along with Sen. Monique Limón (D-Long Beach), called S.B. 1137 “a historic step for the frontline communities that have fought for decades for basic health protections from the disastrous ailments of neighboring oil wells.”
The new law will not only require a 3,200-foot health and safety buffer zone for new oil and gas wells, it will also strengthen protections for people who live, work and play near existing extraction sites, the senator told Inside Climate News.
“Oil and gas well operators would be responsible for implementing a leak detection and response plan by 2027 to detect harmful emission releases before they impact surrounding communities,” Gonzalez said. “This is a critical step towards ensuring that our communities are not burdened by pollution that has been linked to adverse health outcomes like cancer, asthma, and birth defects.”
Making the Invisible Visible
Every April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates greenhouse gas emissions associated with human activities nationwide. Carbon dioxide accounts for most human-caused emissions, but meeting climate targets will require limiting potent climate pollutants like methane that trap far more heat than carbon dioxide.
Yet EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory underestimates methane emissions from oil and gas operations, researchers have found, by failing to account for leaks from low-producing wells and fossil fuel storage tanks like those Ferrar documents.
A leaking oil well or storage tank emits methane and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which cause cancer and harm the nervous, respiratory and immune systems. VOCs also help form smog-producing ozone and particulate matter, which can lead to heart, lung, respiratory problems and early death. Even short-term exposure to particle pollution can trigger spikes in hospital admissions, emergency department visits and premature death, according to the EPA.
Convincing the public and policymakers that frontline communities are being exposed to these chemicals has been difficult, Ferrar said. The volatile emissions can persist at very low concentrations and dissipate with the wind, making it hard to detect and measure exposures.
“An exposure might occur for several seconds at a time and be gone, as the plume travels from the oil and gas well or tank into people’s windows and homes,” he said.
So Ferrar and his colleagues have been using state-of-the-art cameras that make it possible to see gases that are normally invisible to the naked eye. Thanks to this new technology, Ferrar said, he and his colleagues can show both residents and regulators footage of the hazardous emissions coming from oil and gas sites.
Last month, Ferrar inspected 400 idle and active oil and gas wells and other equipment at about 100 drilling sites near homes, schools and other places that present the highest risks to communities in Los Angeles, Ventura and Kern counties. Companies that operate in these regions, which account for the majority of California’s oil production, routinely drill in neighborhoods.
Ferrar filed 68 complaints with local air districts, including 41 with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates Los Angeles.
“Inspectors are in the process of conducting investigations at each site,” a district spokesperson said. “As these are active, ongoing investigations, we are unable to comment further at this time.”
Ferrar also filed 23 complaints with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and four with the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District. The San Joaquin air district has investigated the complaints and is working on reviewing the data and compiling reports, said district spokesperson Jaime Holt. The Ventura district did not respond to requests for comment.
Ferrar chose sites to inspect based on requests from community groups. The groups pooled resources to pay the $5,000 weekly rental fee for the $100,000 camera.
The resulting footage validated people’s concerns, Ferrar said. “These sites are leaking, they’re emitting volumes of VOCs and methane that they’re not permitted to release.”
Overcoming Republican Opposition
The close to three dozen legislators in both chambers who voted against the bill, nearly all Republicans, took more than $3.1 million from the oil and gas industry since 2012.
The California Assembly passed its version of the buffer zone bill late Tuesday night, unswayed by the arguments of Republicans and their oil industry and labor union supporters. Opponents alternately called the measure a job killer and a vehicle for increasing California’s dependence on foreign oil from nations known for human rights and environmental abuses like Russia and Ecuador, where they said sloths are killed by bulldozing the rainforest.
Regardless of stated intent, the bill is designed to shutter Californians’ domestic oil and gas production, said Jeremy Smith of the State Building and Construction Trades Council. That will affect thousands of members’ jobs and increase dependence on foreign regimes, he said. “We will send billions of dollars of California’s hard-earned money to Saudi Arabia, oil extractors in the Amazon rainforest and likely to even Russia and other places that adhere to no environmental or labor standards.”
In fact, extracting California’s heavy oils produces nearly as much greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution as the dirtiest oilfields in the world, including Canada’s tar sands.
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When the bill reached the Senate for debate, Sen. Shannon Grove (D-Bakersfield), a staunch defender of the oil industry, reiterated arguments that the measure would end up destroying Ecuadorian communities.
In response, Sen. Henry Stern (D-Malibu) read a statement from Nemone Nenquimo, a Waorani leader who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for helping set a legal precedent for indigenous rights in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
“The message that the oil industry is sending is simple. If you protect Black and brown families in California from our toxic practices, then we will just go and pollute the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon,” Stern read.
Closer to home, Sen. Limón urged her colleagues to prioritize public health over oil companies’ bottom line. “When there is a spill, when there is a leak, when there is a problem on the road or with a pipeline or at a plant or you name it, it impacts, it kills,” she said. “It’s not just the environment, not just animals, it gets people sick.”
In her closing argument, Gonzalez said simply that this isn’t about stopping oil production. “Thirty-two hundred feet is all we’re asking,”she said.