As Climate-Driven Wildfires Ravage California, Gov. Newsom Pressured to Ban Fossil Fuel Fracking

Interview with Liza Tucker, consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Thus far in this early stage of the year’s fire season, five times more acres in California have burned compared to last year’s destructive fires. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, talking with the press amid smoldering ruins of a burned down home, declared, “This is a climate damn-emergency.” But activists and experts in California point out that Newsom’s administration has been fanning the flames of the climate crisis. On Sept. 21, the Center for Biological Diversity notified Newsom of its intent to file a lawsuit to halt illegal permitting of oil and gas wells in California, whose emissions are a major contributor to heating of the atmosphere and to dangerous ground-level pollution.

In a letter to the governor, the group says issuing such permits causes unacceptable climate and health harms and that the permits are being issued illegally, without the review required under California’s Environmental Quality Act.

The number of permits given to fossil fuel companies was recently investigated by the group Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Liza Tucker, consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog about what they found. She says she’d like to see Newsom ban fracking like Gov. Andrew Cuomo did in New York in December 2014. However, New York had no fracking operations underway when Cuomo issued his executive order banning fracking in the state, later made permanent by the state legislature.

LIZA TUCKER: Gov. Newsom campaigned on a platform of being anti-fracking. Said he didn’t like it and indicated he wanted to ban it if he were elected. He came in and there was quite a lot of hopefulness that things were going to take a sharp turn for the better in terms of actually limiting the drilling. (Former Gov.) Jerry Brown was a big booster of all of the incentives on the demand side – things like incentives for electric cars and really pushing renewable energy and getting it on the grid. And of course Newsom wants to continue that, and that’s perfectly laudable. But it’s one hand clapping if you don’t do something to restrict the supply of oil. And so far, he’s been a disappointment on that front. He has not lived up to what was expected, I think, by environmentalists.

MELINDA TUHUS: What did your research turn up when you looked at the first six months of 2020 compared to the first six months of 2019?

LIZA TUCKER: Nobody was tracking exactly how many permits were being dispensed by the Newsom administration until we started doing it. Our latest press release looked at the first six months of the issuing of oil and gas permits in California and it found that specifically permits for new oil and gas production wells were up 185 percent from the first six months of last year.

MELINDA TUHUS: And Gavin Newsom said he was very upset when he learned about that, right?

LIZA TUCKER: Precisely. I believe Newsom was genuinely unaware. I mean, he didn’t know that fracking permits had doubled. And since he wasn’t a fan of fracking, he became very upset and he fired the oil and gas supervisor in July when we came out with all of this. And then he quietly imposed a fracking moratorium and didn’t tell anybody. The permits that were hanging in the air – the oil companies had applied for more fracking permits. Those permits – there were several hundred of them – were sort of put on ice and what the administration did was it hired the Lawrence Livermore Lab to review these permits and tell the administration whether or not they met the letter of the law, whether they met the regulations in California for approval. The administration didn’t ask for a review of the permits in terms of the safety of the practice. So, basically what happened was there was a moratorium. It wasn’t publicized. They started issuing fracking permits again.

So, you know, companies here are given – let’s just say, a lot of slack. I would say that the regulatory agency here that oversees the oil and gas industry acts like a division of the oil and gas industry rather than like a regulator. The regulators themselves, many of them, come from the oil industry itself and then they come into the agency and there’s a revolving door. These are engineers, geologists, all that kind of thing, and they have a tendency to be hired out of industry and they often leave to go back to industry. I don’t think there’s much training of them as civil servants, as like, What is your role?

One thing Newsom did, to his credit, is he renamed the agency. The agency used to be called the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources – DOGGR – or “Dogger” for short. Now, as part of all the things that have gone on over the last year after our exposure of what’s been going on with the permits, Newsom renamed the agency the California Geologic Energy Management Division, and he adjusted their mission to include public health.

MELINDA TUHUS: And Liza Tucker, you also found information about other kinds of permits increasing, didn’t you?

LIZA TUCKER: Overall, we found all permits – and there are many different kinds of permits for oil drilling. All of them are meant to enhance the amount of oil you’re able to suck out of the ground. That number was around 9 percent. So the Newsom administration is going in the wrong direction. And we looked at several different categories. And what we said was, “We’re very concerned about these regular oil and gas production wells that are being drilled because that produces oil that has emissions that are very, very dangerous to human beings.” And we have in the state of California, 5.5 million people, if you can believe this, who live within one mile of an oil or gas well, which is shocking and nothing is being done about it.

MELINDA TUHUS: Can you describe some of the health impacts of oil and gas drilling?

LIZA TUCKER: You have a lot of emissions of neurotoxic and carcinogenic hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds and everything else. And in urban settings like Los Angeles, where we have the largest urban oil field in the country, there are communities that live here that are directly impacted by those sorts of emissions which degrade air quality and can seriously impact health, which has been proven in numerous studies now. So we are very concerned, particularly with those oil and gas production well numbers – that’s the 185 percent. We believe, based on analyses we’ve seen, that the governor could ban fracking, via an executive order, in order to protect the environment and public health. Andrew Cuomo did it in New York with the stroke of a pen, and we don’t see why Newsom can’t do that here.

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