In a victory for critics of California’s oil drilling industry, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday stopped the approval of new hydraulic fracturing in the state until the permits for those projects can be reviewed by an independent panel of scientists.
Newsom also imposed a moratorium on new permits for steam-injected oil drilling in California, another extraction method opposed by environmentalists that was linked to a massive petroleum spill in Kern County over the summer.
“These are necessary steps to strengthen oversight of oil and gas extraction as we phase out our dependence on fossil fuels and focus on clean energy sources,” Newsom said in a statement released Tuesday morning. “This transition cannot happen overnight; it must advance in a deliberate way to protect people, our environment, and our economy.”
Along with halting the oil extraction methods, the Newsom administration plans to study the possible adoption of safety buffer zones around oil wells in or near residential neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and other facilities that could be exposed to hazardous fumes.
The actions come just weeks after Newsom signed a new law revising the primary mission of a state agency that regulates the oil industry, now called the Geologic Energy Management Division, to include protecting public health and safety and environmental quality.
Since taking office, Newsom has faced pressure from politically influential environmental groups to ban new oil and gas drilling and completely phase out fossil fuel extraction in California, one of the nation’s top petroleum-producing states.
The Democratic governor pushed back on that pressure, however, promising to take a more measured approach that addressed the impacts on oil workers and California cities and counties that are economically dependent on the petroleum industry.
During his campaign for governor in 2018, Newsom vowed to “tighten” state oversight of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and oil extraction in California.
In July, Newsom fired California’s top oil industry regulator after news reports showed that his administration was issuing permits for hydraulic fracturing permits at twice the rate of his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown. Newsom at the time said he did not have the legal authority to impose a state moratorium on fracking.
Newsom on Tuesday halted all pending fracking permits currently under review by state regulators until they can be reviewed by independent experts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
He also ordered the state’s process for issuing fracking permits to be audited by the state Department of Finance to determine if the process complies with state law and to recommend ways to strengthen the permitting process.
The steam-based, oil-extraction method halted by Newsom on Tuesday is different than fracking.
Cyclic steam injection pumps super-heated steam into wells to loosen and liquefy viscous crude oil. Hydraulic fracking involves shooting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to extract oil and natural gas.
Steam injection was suspected to be a factor in one of California’s largest oil spills in decades.
More than 900,000 gallons of oil and brine this summer oozed from a Chevron Corp. facility in McKittrick, a tiny town in oil-rich Kern County. California regulators have fined Chevron $2.7 million for violations at the oil field.
The process also is considered hazardous for oil workers. In 2011, Chevron engineer David Taylor died while was inspecting a steam-injected well near Taft. The soil caved in beneath him and he fell into a cavity that contained 190-degree water and hydrogen sulfide.
Much like Newsom, Brown was pressured by environmentalists to curtail oil extraction in California and was criticized when he rebuffed them, despite the fact the he and the Legislature in 2018 adopted an ambitious goal to convert California to a 100%, zero-carbon electrical supply by 2045.
A 2016 poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that most likely voters in the state opposed fracking and increased oil drilling off the coast. A vast majority also favored stricter emission limits on power plants in an effort to address climate change.
Still, California is home to 26 million vehicles with internal-combustion engines, and the oil industry helps support close to 368,000 blue-collar jobs in the state, according to the Western States Petroleum Assn.
California is home to 72,000 oil-producing wells that last year produced 165.3 million barrels of oil from onshore and offshore facilities, according to the California Department of Conservation. California also consumes more gasoline than any other state — 366 million barrels in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.