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Environmental justice groups urge California to stop issuing new drilling permits in neighborhoods

Gov. Newsom says the state is holding “Big Oil” accountable, yet fenceline communities say he’s leaving them behind

By Liza Gross - Inside Climate News

The first thing Nalleli Cobo wanted to do when she heard the oil well in her South Los Angeles neighborhood was shutting down was scream. She had so much pent-up energy she didn’t know what else to do.

Cobo grew up breathing foul-smelling, toxic emissions from an oil production site just 30 feet from her home. She sometimes caught whiffs of chocolate and citrus, which she thinks came from chemicals used to mask the fetid smell. At first she didn’t connect the unexplained ailments she couldn’t shake—uncontrolled nosebleeds, punishing headaches, stomach pains and crippling body spasms—to the oil wells next door.

Cobo’s mother and sister suffered from similar health problems. When they started comparing notes with neighbors, they realized headaches, nosebleeds and other ailments were rampant in their close-knit community, where most residents are low-income and Latino. They blamed the cluster of neighborhood wells that bordered their homes, a daycare, senior living facility and school for students with disabilities.

Cobo was just 9 years old when she started organizing to end drilling at the facility that was making her community sick. That was 13 years ago.

“When your community is under attack, you stand up and you fight back,” Cobo told a rapt audience during the California Climate Policy Summit Tuesday in Sacramento, down the street from California’s government seat.

So instead of running around outside or playing with her sisters’ old Barbies like a normal kid, Cobo co-founded the grassroots campaign People not Pozos (Spanish for “wells”) to demand “the basic human right of breathing clean air in our homes.”

Nalleli Cobo, who won a fight to close an oil production facility near her house, won the Goldman Environmental Prize last year. Credit: Lara Aburamadan / Survival Media Agency.

The group’s organizing efforts—along with a site visit that left federal regulators sick—convinced Allenco Energy in 2013 to temporarily cease production. Cobo’s nosebleeds stopped. And for the first time, she could breathe without an inhaler. State regulators ordered the company to shut down the site permanently 7 years later.

Environmental justice and health groups thought they had finally won the same protections for communities across the state last fall, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 1137 to prohibit oil drilling in neighborhoods. A few months later, the governor’s oil and gas regulators held a public workshop to lay out their plan to keep fenceline communities safe from hazardous oil and gas operations.

Now this historic law to tighten restrictions on drilling operations within 3,200 feet of homes, schools and other community sites is moldering. Neighborhood oil drillers bankrolled a referendum that suspends the law until voters decide its fate in 2024. And the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, approved some 900 new oil and gas permits since January. The vast majority are neighborhood wells like the one Cobo worked so hard to shut down.

The rollback of such hard-won neighborhood protections was top of mind for environmental health and justice leaders who gathered for the summit in California’s capital Tuesday a week after Gov. Gavin Newsom launched his Campaign for Democracy to “defeat unAmerican authoritarianism” with a tour of red states in the South.

The governor, who positions himself as a climate leader, did not appear before the crowd working to accelerate a just transition away from fossil fuels. But his senior climate policy advisor, Lauren Sanchez, did.

It didn’t take long for the crowd to ask Sanchez to explain what the administration was doing to rein in the explosion of new oil and gas permits near homes and schools.

“I can’t tell you how disappointing that was to see. We had worked so hard to get that bill done,” Sanchez told the environmental justice leaders, health and climate experts, policymakers, lawmakers and scientists packed into a hotel ballroom. It was one of the bills the governor was most proud of last year, she said.

“The governor in his personal capacity is very committed to fighting that referendum, and making sure that as it goes on to the ballot, Californians don’t choose a future where there is daycare drilling,” Sanchez assured the crowd.

State law requires that if a referendum to overturn a law qualifies for the ballot, the statute is suspended until the next election.

Going forward the administration hopes to be able to implement the buffer zone law, Sanchez added, “and make sure that we are able to usher in the public health and safety protections that are necessary.”

The answer did not satisfy the crowd, filled with groups committed to keeping environmental justice concerns front and center.

Last month was the second-warmest March on record. And the U.N. Secretary General recently warned that the world needs immediate climate action on all fronts. It seemed inconceivable to many in the audience that CalGEM would be issuing any new permits, let alone within the new health and safety zones.

Can’t the governor tell CalGEM to stop issuing permits? an audience member asked.

Sanchez, who seemed surprised to get another question on the issue, repeated that CalGEM has to follow the law. “We continue to work with partners across the state in assessing options to make sure we are protecting their health. But at the end of the day, fighting the referendum, making sure that we are able to actually implement that law, is what all communities need long term.”

A Mismatch Between Rhetoric and Policy

Legal experts say the Newsom administration does not have to wait until voters decide whether to keep the setback law to end neighborhood drilling.

Legislation is just one path to establishing setbacks. Before state Sen. Lena Gonzalez stepped up to carry S.B.1137 at the governor’s urging, CalGEM had already started extensive public health rulemaking guided by a scientific advisory panel. The panel, made up of top health experts, presented clear evidence that living near oil and gas operations causes serious health problems, even beyond the 3,200-foot setback.

Although the referendum puts S.B. 1137 on hold, experts say, CalGEM officials could resume the rulemaking process they started before the law passed.

“There’s no reason in principle that they couldn’t continue with the administrative approach,” Ann Alexander, senior attorney with the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council Dirty Energy team, told Inside Climate News.

After all, Alexander noted, CalGEM has a mandate under state law to protect the environment and public health in issuing permits. “I think it would be squarely within that authority to say, ‘We looked at the science, we got together a panel of scientists, they said it’s really risky to issue permits within this area, so we’re just not going to be doing it.’”

Asked via email if the Newsom administration would resume the public health rulemaking it had started before S.B. 1137 became law, Sanchez did not respond. Instead, she forwarded the questions to the governor’s deputy press secretary, Daniel Villaseñor.

Villaseñor declined to answer the questions, referring Inside Climate News to a statement Newsom issued in February, after the setback referendum qualified for the ballot.

“Big Oil knows that California is moving beyond fossil fuels, so on their way out these corporations are doing everything they can to squeeze out profits as they pollute our communities,” the governor said. “We’re not standing for it.”

Those gathered in Sacramento, including lawmakers representing vulnerable communities, are doing everything in their power to help the governor live up to his rhetoric.

The latest United Nations science report says what we’ve all known for a long time, said Ellie Cohen, the chief executive officer of The Climate Center, which hosted the daylong summit. “Climate change is getting worse, it’s deadly and it’s caused by burning fossil fuels.”

“Yet even with everything we know, the United States is number one in the world with plans to build more oil and gas, including fracking,” she said to a chorus of boos.

And the state that likes to tout its climate leadership permitted hundreds of oil and gas wells this year, including a majority within the health and safety zones “we all passed into law last year that are now suspended because of Big Oil’s lies,” Cohen said. “This is unacceptable.”

“A health-protection zone of 3,200 feet doesn’t seem like a lot to ask,” said Gonzalez, the bill’s author. But it remains “very, very difficult” to get this type of legislation passed, she said, even with a Democratic supermajority in the Legislature.

In August, as legislators heard public comment before voting on Gonzalez’ setback bill, the Western States Petroleum Association argued that the legislation would hurt California oil workers who produce “the cleanest, safest fuel in the world.” California’s oil production facilities are already subject to scientifically determined setbacks, industry trade groups argued. Plus, S.B. 1137 “would bulldoze the Amazon rainforest for oil, killing thousands of animals,” California Independent Petroleum Association tweeted.

Even so, that hasn’t stopped Gonzalez from introducing a new bill, S.B. 556, to hold oil operators liable for health harms within a 3,200-foot health protection zone. Living near oil and gas operations leads to “disastrous health impacts, including increased risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, preterm births, high-risk pregnancies, and cancer,” the bill states.

“Back home where I live in southeast Los Angeles and Long Beach, West Long Beach, where oil has been in our history books for over 100 years, we know that the status quo no longer is acceptable,” Gonzalez said. “We have to move on.”

Just ask Nalleli Cobo. Most people think of palm trees, beaches, Hollywood and freeways when they think of Los Angeles, she said. But roughly 580,000 Angelenos live within a quarter of a mile of an oil and gas well.

The facility that made Cobo give up Barbie dolls to fight for her life closed for good in March 2020. It was a bittersweet victory. Cobo had been diagnosed with stage two reproductive cancer just three months earlier, at the age of 19.

“I went through three surgeries, three rounds of chemo, six weeks of radiation, eight minor procedures and I fought off two infections before I heard the words you are cancer free,” Cobo said. “The same way I lost my childhood, I lost my future, I lost the ability to become pregnant.” Cobo’s experience strengthened her resolve to fight so other kids don’t have to go through what she did. Her work helped convince both the L.A. City Council and County Board of Supervisors to ban new oil wells and phase out existing operations in a unanimous vote. And last year, Cobo won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her years of tireless activism.


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