Inside Climate News: California Passes Law Requiring Buffer Zones for New Oil and Gas Wells

September 01, 2022

By Liza Gross

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.”

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