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CalGEM issues 13 new drilling permits in Kern County

by Ramon du Houx
CalGEM) issued at least 13 new drilling permits in May. Ten of these permits greenlight brand new oil wells, placing thousands of lives at risk from fossil fuel toxic air pollution and possible leaks

June 5, 2024

SACRAMENTO, CA. The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) issued at least 13 new drilling permits in May. Ten of these permits greenlight brand new oil wells, the first such drilling permits issued since August 2023 and the first issued under CalGEM’s new Oil and Gas Supervisor, Doug Ito.

Thirteen of the permits – ten for new oil wells and three for observation wells – were issued to Berry Petroleum, a Kern-based oil operator whose current vice president recently served as a top state oil regulator. The permits were approved near the community of Derby Acres. The closest new oil well will be located just 3,600 feet from the nearest home. The three observation wells will be drilled even closer to Derby Acres residents, within the 3,200 foot health buffer established by SB1137, a law currently on hold pending a referendum vote in the fall.

These 13 permits are for drilling in the Midway Sunset oil field, one of the most carbon-intensive oil fields in the world, where there have been multiple spills, accidents, and one oil worker fatality as a result of the dangerous and extreme extraction techniques needed to produce oil.

“It’s baffling that the state would greenlight new drilling in California amid repeated oil spills, dangerously high air pollution and intensifying climate disasters,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “On top of that, they’re relying on an old environmental review that predates an oil spill that resulted in the death of one oil worker in the very same oilfield.”

It is clear that the elevated risks the new wells pose for the community were not properly vetted. CalGEM relied on an outdated document from a 2011 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process to approve the Midway Sunset drilling permits. The document’s conclusions, including that a 1,200-well project in the oil field would not result in significant environmental impacts, strain credibility. The document also does not adequately account for the danger posed by “surface expressions” related to cyclic steam operations, including new information that has come to light since it was written.

“This is a gross betrayal of communities dealing with the deadly impacts of oil and gas extraction and of California’s climate leadership,” said Collin Rees, United States Program Manager at Oil Change International. “It’s 2024. Why would any leader who’s serious about confronting the climate crisis permit new oil and gas drilling when we know we can’t afford to burn the fossil fuels we already have? Governor Newsom and CalGEM must end all new permitting now.”

Tragically, just one week after the review was finalized, an oil worker died as a result of a surface expression in the very same oil field, near the cyclic steam operations that are now being authorized for expansion with Berry’s new wells. This reliance on a thirteen-year-old environmental assessment overlooks the significant and well-documented harms that oil drilling inflicts on both the environment and surrounding communities.

Additionally, oil drilling poses serious risks to local and regional air and water quality. Oil production sites use and emit known carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde, fine and ultra-fine particulate matter, and other toxins such as hydrogen sulfide and endocrine disruptors.

“As leaders representing California communities impacted by air pollution, toxic spills and the devastating effects of climate change, we say enough is enough! Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA) California is outraged that CalGEM has issued new drilling permits in Kern County, where public health has been sacrificed to the mega-polluter oil and gas industry for far too long” said Meghan Sahli-Wells, EOPA California Director, former Mayor of Culver City. “Families and workers in Kern County have suffered from illnesses, premature deaths, ongoing oil spills, and climate crisis disasters as a result of the oil industry. By sanctioning the expansion of destructive drilling, the state is committing a grave injustice.”

These harmful pollutants are released into the atmosphere, degrading air quality that exacerbates respiratory diseases such as asthma, and causes other significant health issues such as heart attacks and birth complications among nearby residents.

“Allowing new drilling directly opposes CalGEM’s mission to protect public health and safety. After the agency drastically scaled back approvals last year, this increase feels like a slap in the face. It puts the community of Derby Acres at further risk of respiratory issues, cancer, and birth defects. CalGEM has the opportunity to bring tangible benefits to California’s frontline communities, but instead its leaders are putting us in harm’s way once again,” said Maricruz Ramirez, Community Organizer at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.

These permits mark a change to a nearly year-long trend that saw a steep decline in drilling permits across the state. New drilling permits have declined sharply in recent years, from thousands of permits per year at the beginning of Gov. Newsom’s first term, to about 500 permits in 2022, to just 24 permits approved in 2023 – just 18 of which were for new oil wells – and no permits for any new oil wells since August 2023.

“Environmental justice communities in California had hoped the state’s nearly year-long decline in new permitting for extraction would last. It has not. We had hoped, given the agency’s new Supervisor Doug Ito, that the agency would finally fulfill its mission to protect Californians and regulate this dying and toxic industry. It has not,” said Kobi Naseck, Coalition Director, Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods. “This new round of permits is a clear step backward and continues the state’s racist legacy of drilling in neighborhoods. The state has put the community of Derby Acres, California at risk, and we won’t be quiet about it.”

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