Oil setback law will create new safeguards in Kern County – unless industry efforts overturn it
A California law banning new oil and gas production within 3,200 feet of homes, schools and hospitals is set to take effect Jan. 1. But the law’s impact on those who live in the shadow of the state’s lucrative oil industry remains unclear.
Francisco Gonzales is one of an estimated 2 million Californians living near oil and gas production. He wishes the buffer zones, also called setbacks, had been in place when he and his wife moved into their Arvin home more than a decade ago.
“It’s nice, except for all the contamination,” he says of the small farm town nestled at the base of the Kern County foothills.
Gonzales’ subdivision is located a stones’ throw away from an active oil derrick, one of about 40,000 that dot the landscape in California’s oil country.
He says living near those pumps has caused a slew of health effects, from allergies to asthma. But the biggest challenge came in 2014, when firefighters evacuated eight homes in his neighborhood for nearly a year.
First responders found highly explosive levels of methane leaking from the ground and through the homes’ power outlets. Gonzales’ home was not evacuated. Years later, though, he wonders why he was allowed to stay.
“Why did they leave us here?” he said in Spanish. “If we live across the street, and they're removing all of the contamination, we're the ones who are absorbing it everyday.”
Governor Newsom recently signed SB 1137, establishing the largest setbacks for oil and gas drilling in the nation. The law is part of a broader climate package as Newsom looks to expedite and realize the state’s ambitious clean-energy goals.
State Senator Lena Gonzalez authored the bill. The Long Beach Democrat says it’s necessary to protect low-income communities of color – like Arvin – that bear the brunt of the state’s fossil fuel production.
“It’s a long-standing and glaring example of environmental racism,” she said on the Senate floor.
But industry figures decried the legislation, saying it will harm those communities by crippling the local economy. Bakersfield Republican Vince Fong urged his colleagues to oppose the legislation.
“This bill is a setback for desperately needed energy production in California. This bill is a setback for Californians struggling to afford to live and work in California. This bill is a setback to the entire California economy,” the assemblyman said.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens, another oil hot spot in Southern California, supported the law but told lawmakers that the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the most vulnerable residents.
“This is not a bill that says, ‘I’m going to shut down all wells near a school.’ It’s a bill that tells a community like mine, ‘Wait a little bit longer,’” she said.
Cesar Aguierre with the Central California Environmental Justice Network says the law is necessary to protect communities like Arvin and Bell Gardens. He alleges that regulators have been unwilling or unable to hold neighborhood well operators accountable.
“We can’t rely on enforcement because we see what the product of relying on enforcement has led to,” he said. “We need actual real protections, and that’s what setbacks are.”
Aguierre pointed to dozens of abandoned wells found leaking potentially explosive levels of methane in residential East Bakersfield this summer, bringing national attention to the Morning Star neighborhood.
Crews quickly sealed the leaky wells. But as recently as mid-September, state inspectors found a handful of wells had begun leaking again.
Under SB 1137, all wells within buffer zones will be subject to enhanced monitoring and leak-detection systems. But those measures won’t be required until 2025.
A spokesperson for the California Geologic Energy Management Division, which regulates the state’s oil industry, said enforcement will be complaint-driven and investigators will have six months to follow up.
The spokesperson declined KVPR’s request for an interview and did not answer specific questions about what additional resources, if any, the agency will receive to ensure neighborhood wells comply with the new law.
Gonzales, the Arvin homeowner, views the legislation as a hard-fought victory after nearly a decade of advocating for his neighborhood, he said.
“[Fossil fuels] are something that we need for the moment, something that our economy depends on, but that doesn’t mean they need to do it right where we live and where it’s going to put our lives in danger,” he said.
But Gonzales’ victory could be short-lived. Days after Newsom signed SB 1137, oil industry representatives moved to repeal the legislation through a referendum.
That means voters could have the final say on the issue in November 2024. Under state law, setback opponents have until this December to collect more than 600,000 signatures and trigger the referendum.
If successful, the law would be suspended until the vote takes place, according to the California Secretary of State's office.