The oil industry has been busy using this crisis to demand cuts in regulation while shifting the costs of its impending collapse onto California taxpayers. | Credit: Courtesy

While our attention is focused on COVID-19, and rightly so, Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Geologic Energy Management team (CalGEM) quietly green-lighted 24 new fracking permits. These were the first fracking permits the state has issued in nine months and include permits to Aera Energy for oil well stimulation in Kern County.

Fracking pollutes our air with toxic emissions, contaminates our groundwater, and pushes us faster toward the economic and health disaster that is climate change. Moreover, a Harvard study released on April 5 (here) has found that Coronavirus patients in areas with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the infection than patients in parts of the country with lower pollution levels.

This risk falls disproportionately on vulnerable populations, many of whom live close to the sites where fossil fuel activities take place. These communities also tend to have limited access to good healthcare, and therefore experience an even greater threat when the virus takes hold. This is an issue of basic human rights: Access to decent health care and a livable climate should be a given for all of us. Instead, the Governor has permitted new fracking that will only intensify the toxic burden of pollution on communities that are already the most threatened by COVID 19.

In the midst of the COVID-19 respiratory pandemic, the last thing we need is more toxic chemicals in the air we breathe. While we follow Newsom’s order to “socially distance” and struggle to keep our families safe, CalGEM’s recent fracking approvals amount to regulatory backpedaling that further jeopardizes public health. Indeed, as communities across this state have complied with the Governor’s stay-at-home orders, the oil industry has been busy using this crisis to demand cuts in regulation while shifting the costs of its impending collapse onto California taxpayers.

These issues are not restricted to Kern County, however. In our own county, Aera Energy and TerraCore continue to pursue drilling new wells in the Cat Canyon oil field. Together, they are asking for permits to drill close to 500 wells. Pumping oil from these wells would employ cyclic steam injection, a method similar to fracking, and which is responsible for one of the largest ongoing oil spills in California’s recent history. These wells would penetrate the Santa Maria ground water basin upon which 200,000 people as well as many local businesses and agriculture depend. Many of them are near schools, churches, and individual family homes and would pose threats to respiratory health.

Clearly, our health care system is not prepared for this pandemic. As climate disruption continues, the spread of disease will likely develop more rapidly. Permitting new drilling only intensifies this likelihood. Permitting fracking in the midst of a climate crisis and a public health crisis is even more irresponsible.

Right now, the Governor and CalGEM, the agency responsible for oil and gas oversight, are rewriting health and safety rules regulating oil production in the state. This is a tremendous opportunity to urge them to stop all new oil permitting in California, drop existing production through a just transition that would protect the livelihoods of fossil fuel workers, and initiate the process by rolling out 2,500 foot health and safety buffer zones between where oil drilling can happen and where communities live, work and play.

The Last Chance Alliance, a California-wide coalition of hundreds of environmental justice and community organizations, is asking us all to contact Governor Newsom and make sure he takes leadership not only on confronting the public health crisis posed by COVID-19 but also to address the crises posed by climate disruption and fossil fuel pollution.

You can easily do this in under five minutes by filling out this comment form. This week, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day is a perfect time to take action.

Our eyes are on you, Governor Newsom.


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