What Is CalGEM? How Does It Affect Climate Policies?

by Martha Griswold and Clair Brown, 350BAA Legislative Team

            Most Californians have not heard of CalGEM, but this state agency plays an important role in overseeing the oil and extractions that harm the health of nearby neighborhoods and the environment. CalGEM stands for Geologic Energy Management, and its official job is to protect the public health, public safety, and the environment through its regulation of oil, gas, and geothermal industries. CalGEM has jurisdiction over more than 242,000 wells. CalGEM plays an important role in implementing California’s goal to be carbon-neutral by 2045. CalGEM enforcement of regulations for oil and gas operations reduces  emissions from drilling operations and also ensures the safe and permanent closure of energy resource wells.

            Climate activists don’t want CalGEM to forget its mission in the upheavals of the Covid-19 pandemic. The fossil fuel industry lobbies hard to stop any regulations that impede oil and gas operations based on profits with inadequate  regard to public health and safety.

350 Bay Area Action’s Legislative team has been involved with efforts to strengthen  CalGEM’s oil regulatory oversight of this hazardous industry. Rule making is underway to develop new public health protections from the oil and gas industry.  CalGEM just completed an extensive series of workshops to gather input on the regulations they will develop this summer/fall.  A statewide coalition generated over 40,000 comments to CalGEM calling for a 2500 foot setback and stronger health protections! Our Legislative volunteers also actively participated in CalGEM’s public hearings on the rules for oil drilling operations near communities. Our activists  spoke at the hearings, sent letters, and signed petitions that explained the health reasons for requiring a 2500 foot setback of all oil and gas drilling from activities where children were present, including schools, health clinics, houses, and community centers. 

 On the Legislative side, we are also actively pushing to pass AB 345 which tells CalGEM they must complete these public health regulations by early 2021 and consider 2500 foot setbacks. 

  • AB 345 Protects communities near oil and gas extraction operations
    • The Problem: Big Oil is allowed to drill for oil near schools, health clinics, and houses, which causes lung and heart problems, harms pregnant women, and lowers life expectancy.
    • The Solution: Public health experts recommend a 2500 foot setback from oil drilling to protect the health of vulnerable communities.
    • Nearly five and a half million Californians—mostly people of color—live within one mile of an oil or gas well. Studies link proximity to oil and gas wells to increased risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, preterm births and high-risk pregnancies, and cancer.
    • AB 345 sets up an environmental justice program and enhances public participation in the regulatory process. Also the bill directs CalGEM to establish a minimum setback distance between oil and gas activities, and consider a 2,500-foot setback distance for schools and playgrounds in the regulations.

CalGEM issues 48 new fracking permits.

It would make sense for Cal GEM to slow down or halt new oil drilling permits while it is writing these new rules.  Instead, CalGEM continues to issue new fracking permits along with new drilling permits.  They don’t seem to care about the detrimental health impact of oil and gas extractions on nearby neighborhoods. 

  • Since Gov. Newsom ended a moratorium on fracking permits in April, CalGEM has issued 48 new fracking permits:  36 new permits for Aera Energy and 12 new permits to Chevron, all in Kern County, which is already suffering from poor air quality and soil contamination caused by fracking operations. 282 permit applications are still pending oversight approval by the notoriously lax regulators at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
  •  Fracking pollutes ground and surface water, damages air quality, kills plants and wildlife. It uses huge amounts of fresh water near each fracking site, even in dry areas with not enough clean water for communities and agriculture.  The water is mixed with toxic chemicals, and much of it returns to the surface to poison the soil or streams and rivers. 
  • In addition to the fracking permits, new drilling permits for more than 1,400 new oil and gas wells have been issued so far in 2020 under Newsom’s watch.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD)’s evidence-based research helps the public and lawmakers understand the devastation and health problems caused by oil extraction operations.

“Every new oil well brings us closer to climate catastrophe, so it’s unconscionable that Gov. Newsom keeps handing out new drilling and fracking permits. The oil industry is a major threat to Californians’ health during the climate crisis and a pandemic made worse by pollution. Our state must follow the science and begin a rapid and just transition off dirty oil and gas extraction.”  Jason Pfeifle, Senior Campaigner, CBD

            These permits for new oil extraction wells do not align with the anti-pollution, pro-environmental stance Gov. Newsom took during his successful campaign for office.

            350 Bay Area Action joins with other environmental justice groups around the state to demand the repeal of these permits because of the harm to public health and to the environment.