CA needs to drill its commitment to environmental justice

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California is often presumed to be a progressive, environmentally conscious state, with lofty clean energy goals. Yet realistically, the state needs to act faster given the rapidity of climate impacts descending upon us. One of the first targets for change should be oil drilling. California is one of the top five producers of crude oil in the United States. In fact, no state law prohibits drilling for oil right next to a home or a school.

Drilling operations spew particulate matter, benzene and other toxic chemicals that contaminate the air and groundwater. Exposure to these pollutants is linked to a host of health impacts, including headaches, asthma, pregnancy complications and cancer. Plus, no one wants a noisy, dirty piece of machinery operating at their doorstep.

California’s economic development at the turn of the 20th century is in no small way due to the discovery of oil. Historical redlining ensured that oil wells were sited — and continue to be sited — in neighborhoods that are poor and predominantly Black or Latinx. Los Angeles County is home to a sprawl of urban oilfields and is a prime example of the many environmental injustices that come from proximity to oil and gas development. Wells are sited in communities such as West Adams and University Park, which CalEnviroscreen identifies as within the top quarter of the most environmentally burdened census tracts across the state, meaning that the sites face multiple sources of pollution. Drilling in neighborhoods such as these is a conspicuous form of environmental racism.

Regardless of the specific location of drilling, the fossil fuel industry poses a threat to all life on this planet as our overzealous burning of fossil fuels drives catastrophic climate change. The fundamental, long-term solution to this problem is an equitable and complete transition to clean energy. But in the meantime, California can take important steps to protect vulnerable communities.

AB 345, which would have required a minimum setback distance of 2,500 feet from housing, schools and playgrounds for the permitting and re-permitting of oil and gas wells, was voted down 5-4 in the state legislature last year. While the policy proposed by AB 345 may have failed at the legislative level, it is of the utmost importance and should be taken up by other state regulating bodies as a critical matter of environmental health and justice. The California Geologic Energy Management Division, for example, issues new permits for drilling and therefore should adopt the science-based recommendation of a 2,500-foot setback distance for sensitive and high-occupancy structures.

Oil and gas companies are the obvious losers if a policy such as this one was to be implemented, and both are certain to aggressively fight it. These same companies lobbied against AB 345 and made donations to the three Democratic state senators that vetoed the bill. Passing more stringent regulations makes oil and gas development less economically viable, but that is hardly a flaw. If California truly hopes to meet its climate goals, implementing a minimum drilling setback of 2,500 feet from sensitive sites is one policy method for legally facilitating a phase-out of fossil fuels from the state. And rather than applying this setback requirement only to new or re-permitted wells, it must also be applied to all currently operating sites to ensure that the communities at the greatest risk of exposure do not suffer any longer. Californians residing near oil and gas development have been effectively subsidizing this industry at the expense of their own health and well-being. Stricter regulation would make the economic cost of fossil fuel use more in line with its social cost.

California claims to be a leader in climate and environmental reform — policies such as these are instrumental in actually putting words into action. California’s public officials are mandated to act in the interest of protecting the people of this state. Community environmental justice coalitions such as Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling Los Angeles, or STAND-LA, are doing the hard organizing work to fight for the health of their communities, but they have yet to be taken seriously in the state legislature.

If the state fails to take action, local governments such as the city of Los Angeles must heed the calls of organizers and residents to prioritize the health of frontline communities. There are signs of progress on this front. Recently, members of the Los Angeles City Council met with STAND-LA leaders to discuss passing legislation to phase out drilling in the city entirely. A complete phase-out of drilling is the ultimate solution to the demands of residents and environmental justice advocates, but unless it is expedited through the implementation of minimum setbacks or outright bans, oil and gas companies with existing permits may continue to operate for years to come.

Adopting a statewide setback distance of 2,500 feet is a moral imperative, both for the people whose quality of life has been diminished and continues to suffer from close proximity to oil and gas development, as well as for all present and future California residents who will bear the burden of climate change.

Rachel Pekelney is a junior at UC Berkeley student majoring in conservation and resource studies.